Monday, September 29, 2014

Brandon Harris Gets Start; How Have Other True Freshmen Performed Under Center This Year?

Photo Courtesy: The Advocate
Brandon Harris will start at quarterback for the LSU Tigers Saturday night when they visit 6th ranked Auburn. 

A true freshman out of Parkway High School, Harris has looked polished and poised while coming out of the bullpen to replace season-starter Anthony Jennings in a loss at home against Mississippi State and a blowout win over New Mexico State this past Saturday. 

Les Miles, addressing the media during his weekly Monday luncheon, said after looking at film and discussing the situation with other coaches, the decision to insert Harris as the starter was not a difficult one. It surprised me that Miles announced publicly his intention to go with the hot-handed Harris. If Auburn was unsure who LSU planned on starting, the Plainsmen would have to prepare for both Jennings and Harris to take a large number of snaps. It stands to reason that Auburn will now concentrate more on the Harris-led possessions in the MSU and NMSU games. 

Talk about a tough spot for a young man to step into: LSU is already down one game in the SEC West after the loss to Mississippi State and will try to get back into the thick of the hunt against an Auburn team that is 4-0, beating opponents by an average of 26 points per game. 

However, Auburn isn't demoralizing quarterbacks with their air defense. Heading into the 5th game of the season, Auburn has the 50th best pass defense in the NCAA, giving up 222.5 yards per game.  

Will Harris be able to take advantage of an Auburn defense that is banged up (top two linebackers were hurt Saturday in Louisiana Tech game.  Cassanova McKinzy-Mild Concussion; Kris Frost-Leg)? Or will the "spectacle" of his first start occurring in Jordan-Hare in front an angry den of blue-and-orange clad fans overwhelm Harris?

Last year at this time, Brandon Harris was coming off a win over Bastrop (314 Yards Passing, 192 Yards Rushing in a 79-56 win) and preparing for Parkway's final non-district game against BTW (2 TD's in 41-0 win).  This week, he preps for the defending SEC champs.

Harris will not be the only "True Freshman" taking snaps as the starter among the Power 5 conference teams in action.  Miami and Wake Forest have started 13th graders all season, while Clemson and Louisville hopped on the rookie bandwagon this past week.

The results (vs. FBS competition)? 
6 wins
5 losses.

Wake Forest's John Wolford is linked to the Demon Deacons 1-3 mark vs. FBS opposition.  In losses to UL-Monroe, Utah State and Louisville, Wolford threw just two touchdown passes while he was picked off six times. In the lone win over Army, Wolford threw for 238 yards, 2 TD's and just 1 interception.  More importantly, how do Wolford's numbers compare to the average output against Wake's opponents?

Team          Passing Yds. Allowed (Wake)          Rushing Yds. Allowed (Wake)
ULM                 211.0   (97, 0-1)                           103.8 (-3, -0.1 Yds/Carry)
Utah State        256.5  (257,2-2)                           78.3 (-25, -1.0 Yds/Carry)
Army               286.3   (238,2-1)                          196.8 (100, 3.3 Yds/Carry)
Louisville          167.0   (122,0-1)                           58.0 (-22, -1.0 Yds/Carry)

Overall, Wolford's performances were below the average yards allowed by the opposition but he was hamstrung tremendously by a pitiful running attack. In four FBS games, Wake Forest has run for: -3, -25, 100, -22 yards for a net rushing total of 50 yards, an average of 12.5 yards/game.  Only his debut against the Warhawks did Wolford perform well below ULM's average yards allowed.  

Miami's Brad Kaaya opened his season and Hurricane career against Wake's most recent opponent. He struggled in that curtain-raiser but has progressed accordingly. Kaaya threw two picks in the Louisville game and two picks in a loss to Nebraska two weeks ago. In the Hurricanes two wins over FBS level teams (Miami beat FCS FAMU), Kaaya tore Arkansas State up (342 Yds, 4 TD's, 1 Int.) and guided the 'Canes efficiently past Duke last weekend (223 Yds., 2 TD, 0 Int.).

Team          Passing Yds. Allowed (Miami)           Rushing Yds. Allowed (Miami)
Louisville           167   (179, 1-2)                             58   (80, 3.0 Yds./Carry)
Arkansas St.     249.8 (342, 4-1)                           136.3 (146, 4.7 Yds./Carry)
Nebraska          223.2 (359, 3-2)                           108.4 (76, 3.3 Yds./Carry)
Duke                181.2 (223, 2-0)                           186.4 (203, 4.9 Yds./Carry)

Kaaya has performed above average in every game vs. FBS competition, with a superb performance last week against Duke (42 yards more than Duke normally allows, 2 TD's, 0 Int.).  Even in his premier, Kaaya's numbers against Louisville surpassed the Cardinals' average yardage allowed.  He has been aided by a nominal rushing attack at worst (80 yards by Canes RB's vs. Louisville) and studly ground game at best (203 yards vs. Duke last week). 

Bobby Petrino tabbed true freshman, Reggie Bonnafon to start last week's game against Wake Forest and the first-time starter didn't do anything to lose the game, throwing for 206 yards without a touchdown or an interception. The Hurricanes ran for 215 yards to help sink Wake Forest (Demon Deacons defense averages 159.6 yards allowed passing and 171.2 yards rushing yards per game).

Clemson's Dabo Swinney turned to true freshman Deshaun Watson to handle North Carolina Saturday and Watson was more than up to the task in the 50-35 win over the Tar Heels at home. Watson threw for a Clemson-record 6 touchdowns while piling up 435 yards with only one interception the blemish on a near-perfect night.  North Carolina is not good, ranking next to dead-last in pass defense this season (give up 353 yards per game) and aren't much better against the run (91st with 190.0 yards allowed every game).  Watson's numbers are well above the norm for North Carolina opponents.  His biggest hurdle is, "Where does a kid go after breaking records in his debut?"

Will Brandon Harris pull a "Deshaun" and break the LSU record for touchdown passes in a game (4 by a slew of Tiger QB's: Mauck, Davey, Booty, Tyler, Howard and Hodson)? Or will #6 have a John Walford curtain-raiser?

The safe bet is more toward "Deshaun" than "Walford" thanks largely to four dudes lining up in the backfield with Harris.  If Leonard Fournette, Kenny Hilliard, Terrance McGee and Darrell Williams keep the Auburn defense honest with 180+ yards on the ground, Brandon Harris' talent will shine through. Whether he gets ample support or if he is forced to "go it alone", Harris' performance will be judged on what number matters most in the end--the ones formed by the bulbs in the Auburn scoreboard.