Max Johnson's stellar finish just thickened the plot for LSU's offseason
Myles Brennan was not the reason LSU got off to the slow start that it did.
The LSU quarterback averaged 371 passing yards and racked up 11 touchdown passes in 3 games before he went down with a season-ending injury. To say that Brennan was to blame for the Tigers’ stunning 1-2 start would be totally unfair.
Max Johnson was, however, the reason that LSU finished the season the way that it did.
The LSU quarterback averaged 352 passing yards and racked up 8 total touchdowns (6 passing, 2 rushing) in his 2 career starts. To say that Johnson’s presence was massive for the Tigers’ surprising 2-game winning streak to end the season would be totally fair.
And thus begins an offseason of quarterback debate in Baton Rouge.
It’s true that neither candidate has a particularly significant sample size. It’s also true that when LSU kicks off its 2021 season, it’ll need to have an answer for what’s sure to be the biggest question facing the Tigers. That is, assuming Ed Orgeron doesn’t elect to pull some Jeremy Pruitt, um, “stuff” and rotate quarterbacks.
If there’s a silver lining to LSU’s frustrating 2020 season, it’s that it appears to have 2 capable SEC starting quarterbacks. Barring another injury or a surprising transfer, there should be a Johnson vs. Brennan competition in the works. Nothing needs to be manufactured. We saw exactly what played out.
Some will read this fresh off another prolific performance from Johnson in a winning effort and comment/say/think “what battle are you talking about? Johnson is the guy.” You might be right. You might be wrong. All I know is even with that remarkable upset at Florida, 2 games isn’t very much to go on, especially when 50% of that sample size was against Ole Miss’ woeful defense. That’s not to say that Johnson doesn’t deserve praise for hanging half a hundred in his first home start. It’s just worth remembering it came against the No. 122 defense in FBS that couldn’t have tackled Kayshon Boutte in a phone booth (and basically didn’t):
14 Rec. 308 Rec Yds. 3 TD.
🔥 LSU single-game rec yds record
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 20, 2020
Boutte’s emergence is one of the things working in Johnson’s favor. There’s no doubt about that. The rapport they had in the last 3 games was special. Boutte ended the year with 527 receiving yards in those last 3 games.
The Johnson-Boutte connection was similar to the one Brennan had with Terrace Marshall. In those 3 games with Brennan as the starting quarterback, Marshall had 424 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns.
(We should probably make sure Steve Ensminger gets some credit for this. With a major downgrade on the offensive line and so many moving pieces, LSU still had some extremely prolific 2020 moments on offense. Ensminger retired from his OC duties and will be an analyst in 2021, but again, the guy wasn’t the problem with LSU in 2020.)
Obviously, Marshall is off to the NFL, and Brennan will be tasked with getting on the same page as underclassmen like Boutte, Koy Moore and Jaray Jenkins. Johnson got the benefit of working alongside that group down the stretch when they had nearly a full season of SEC competition under their belts. That alone could give the southpaw a leg up heading into spring.
Then again, who knows how this could play out with what looks like a significant staff shakeup. Without Ensminger and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, who reportedly wasn’t retained, both quarterbacks will have to win over some new offensive coaches.
It’s true that this is a “what have you done for me lately” business, but that shouldn’t necessarily rule out Brennan because he was hurt. He waited 3 years for that opportunity and showed he was ready, albeit in losing efforts when LSU’s defense couldn’t stay on the field with a competent SEC offense. For what it’s worth, Brennan still graded out higher than Johnson by Pro Football Focus. Among SEC starting quarterbacks, only Mac Jones, Kyle Trask, Matt Corral and JT Daniels finished ahead of Brennan.
By no means did Brennan hold the LSU offense back:
Highest-graded QBs on throws 20+ yards downfield
1. Zach Wilson, BYU
2. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
3. Myles Brennan, LSU
4. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma pic.twitter.com/2antLLC3GZ
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 23, 2020
Brennan stretches the field better than Johnson, and Johnson can make more things happen when the play breaks down than Brennan. They have different skill sets, which is OK.
You could argue that both looked a whole lot better as starters than they ever did coming into a game in relief. That’s to be expected. Well, unless you think like Pruitt.
If you think like Orgeron, you know how important it is to get the quarterback situation figured out. When he didn’t like what he saw in spring 2018, he risked losing the faith of his locker room by bringing in Joe Burrow. If you read Orgeron’s book with Bruce Feldman “Flip the Script,” you got insight on just how crucial that move was for the psyche of that LSU team in 2018 and 2019.
The same could be true of the 2021 team. For all we know, there could be an overwhelming favorite among LSU players by the end of spring. Maybe Orgeron will agree with it, and maybe he won’t. Maybe his new OC hire will help decide.
The good news for LSU is that this time, there won’t be any need to dip into the grad transfer market. There are 2 legitimate signal-callers in Baton Rouge. It wasn’t long ago when it seemed like such a struggle just to find 1.
Johnson ended the season like any true freshman would hope to. He took command of a bad situation and won over a whole lot of people who probably once thought of him as either “QB3” or “Brad Johnson’s son.”
Johnson made a name for himself, and as a result, he made it a much more interesting offseason on the Bayou.