BATON ROUGE — It doesn’t sound like LSU’s newest starting quarterback, Brandon Harris, is about to let his recent promotion go to his head.
“I’m a freshman. I still make bonehead mistakes,” Harris said. “You’re going to have hurdles when you’re a freshman. I don’t think everybody understands that.”
Coach Les Miles understands it well, though, and that was a reason Harris spent the first five games in a backup role for the 15th-ranked Tigers.
Lately, however, Harris has outperformed sophomore Anthony Jennings, and Miles has decided that LSU’s first Southeastern Conference road game at fifth-ranked Auburn this Saturday is the right time to give Harris his first start.
For Miles, the change wasn’t just about how Harris has played, but how the rest of LSU’s offense has responded to Harris’ presence under center.
“The team played well around him,” Miles noted.
In the last 10 drives with Harris at quarterback, LSU has scored nine touchdowns. The lone exception in that stretch came when Harris drove the Tigers nearly 35 yards in about 15 seconds to set up a failed Hail Mary attempt at the end of a 34-29 loss to Mississippi State.
The interception of Harris’ Hail Mary heave is the only pick he has thrown. Overall, he is 22 of 30 passing for 394 yards and four TDs, has rushed for 128 yards and three scores, and has led LSU to 13 TDs in 19 total drives.
“When he’s in a game, his presence is felt in a positive way with our team because we trust him and we feel he can be a guy who can get the job done,” said receiver Malachi Dupre, a fellow freshman who has caught all four of Harris’ scoring passes.
In last weekend’s 63-7 victory over New Mexico State, LSU scored one TD in its first seven offensive series before Harris relieved Jennings and produced touchdowns on all seven of his drives. He threw for three scores — the first true freshman in LSU history to do so in a game — and also ran for two more TDs.
One of the righty’s TD passes came on a difficult 27-yard throw to Dupre as he scrambled to his left.
“It was a really good play that I knew he was capable of,” Dupre said. “I’ve seen him make throws more impressive than that (in practice). I’ve seen him throw the ball 60 yards on two knees.”
Harris’ second rushing touchdown resulted from improvisation after a bobbled snap in shotgun formation. Forced to abort a hand off to Kenny Hilliard, he bolted to his left and bowled over a tackler crossing the goal line.
“There is some ad-lib to his game that’s very, very positive,” Miles said. “He’s a guy that is really fast and a guy that can really throw the ball. You put him in a quality position to extend a play, some good things can happen.”
At LSU, freshmen are generally prohibited from talking to media, with exceptions sometimes made right after games in which they played pivotal roles. Last Saturday night marked the first time since the season started that Harris spoke with reporters. He shared credit for his performance — and defended Jennings — like a savvy veteran.
“With our offensive line and our running game, it’s great to play quarterback here, just with what you’ve got to turn around to hand the ball off to and what you can throw to,” Harris said.
When asked about the way the crowd erupted when he entered the game, Harris responded by saying it bothered him that LSU fans booed when Jennings struggled.
“When Anthony is in the game, we need to be supportive,” Harris said. “I don’t think it’s a quarterback battle. I think it’s just two guys who know they have an opportunity to help this team win. … Anthony does a great job of getting us in the right plays and that’s something I try to model my game after.”
Harris came to LSU from Parkway High School in Bossier City, Louisiana, where his coach, David Feaster, described Harris as “great at everything.”
“He was a great student of the game, extremely smart, a great teammate, first one to practice every day, great attitude, easy to talk to and gets along with adults just as well as with kids,” Feaster said. “All of our players played better when he was here. He has a knack for instilling confidence in players, and enthusiasm, and our players felt they were going to score every time we had the ball.”
Feaster suspects the same phenomenon is occurring now at LSU. Auburn will try to prove otherwise, but coach Gus Malzahn, whose program recruited Harris, wasn’t about to downplay the young quarterback’s ability.
“He is extremely talented. He has an NFL arm,” Malzahn said. “He can run. He is a threat.”