by Carl DuboisOctober 18, 2009 1:51 AM
The backup quarterback is often the most popular guy on campus. In major college football, there may be no greater challenge to that notion than LSU's Jarrett Lee.
I don't have to tell you how quickly, even in a depressed economy, LSU fans could have collected enough money last season to set up Lee in a pastoral villa in Tuscany for the rest of his life. With spending money.
So, why would anybody ever want Lee again to take meaningful snaps, with the game on the line? Because he just might be the key to unlocking the potential of this LSU offense.
If you were a lawyer hired to defend the case for Jarrett Lee getting another shot, you could build a compelling argument -- especially if the jury of 12 were Les Miles, Gary Crowton and the 10 offensive starters who don't play quarterback.
I don't sit in on team meetings and film study. I don't see practice. I don't coach football. There, in one paragraph, are enough reasons for you to read no further.
Ah, but you kept reading, didn't you? Because you're curious too. Admit it.
Lacking the information the coaches have about Lee and Jordan Jefferson, I must rely upon what I see and hear, and what I've learned in 26 years of writing about football and the psychology of the people who play and coach it.
In every one of those 26 seasons, I heard repeatedly how the quarterback position is about character, leadership, maturity through growing pains -- and the ability to slow the game down enough in the mind's eye to execute a game plan under the most challenging of circumstances.
Call me crazy, but I think Lee is closer to that point than Jefferson is, especially with respect to the 2009 LSU Tigers and their potential.
Character? Lee faced the music last year. He threw all those pick-6 passes and didn't hide. He answered every question about his failures.
Leadership? I never heard him say, "The receiver ran the wrong route," or "The ball hit him in the hands, and if he'd caught it instead of letting it deflect into the arms of the defender, it might have been a totally different game after that."
I don't know much, but I know what I've seen from 26 years of looking at the faces of people who failed and watching them take responsibility for their mistakes -- and the mistakes of their players or teammates.
Louis Coleman didn't duck out the side door when he was the LSU pitcher most prone to giving up home runs early in his career. He didn't hide when he'd slid so far down the hierarchy as a junior everyone wondered if he'd ever pitch again. He didn't seek shelter inside the team bus after giving up the grand slam that ended LSU's season in Omaha.
A year later, after passing up a chance to turn pro so he and his teammates could have one more shot at it, he got the first and last outs of LSU's national championship season -- and many in between.
In 1996, Nicholls State went 8-4 and made it to the Division I-AA playoffs, completing one of the best turnarounds in history. Before and after that season, I talked with players who endured the 0-11 season of 1995.
To a man, they said they wouldn't change a thing, because they treasured what they'd become, forged in the fires of a winless season. Rock bottom is often where character is discovered, where it becomes the foundation of success.
This year in baseball, LSU won 18-3 on a Friday night against Tennessee, slapping JUCO transfer Aaron Tullo around for 10 runs in two-plus innings. As hard as it must have been to do, he stayed behind after the game to talk about his struggles.
"Every time I kept the ball up and made a mistake, LSU would make me pay for it," said Tullo, who was the pitcher most prone to giving up home runs on a Tennessee staff that was the SEC's most prone to giving up home runs.
He's still working on his game and his confidence. When he didn't hide on the bus, that showed me something about character.
None of this matters on the scoreboard if you can't throw the ball accurately. I get that. Taking responsibility and being willing to "man up" after crushing failure is no guarantee of later success, but those are the types of guys I'd want with me in a foxhole.
Jefferson lost his first game as a starter, the regular-season finale at Arkansas last year, and faded into bowl preparations. Protected by LSU's policy of shielding true freshmen from reporters, he didn't have to face tough questions about the loss.
When he led the Tigers to their annual Crush Somebody in a Bowl Game Under Les Miles, LSU allowed him to discuss victory. After Jefferson's next loss, his first in Tiger Stadium, he didn't want to talk about it. He didn't appear for postgame interviews.
That told me something, and it jogged my memory. This decade, JaMarcus Russell was the LSU quarterback most likely to be absent from a requested meeting with reporters. Matt Flynn and Matt Mauck showed up when asked.
Which two of those three won national championships?
Yeah, I know. It's not that simple. But it's worth noting.
Look, I know the media often comes off as self-serving jerks with a sense of entitlement. Sometimes, it's with good reason. But this is not about media access.
The quarterback doesn't have time to stop and talk with each of 92,000 people after a game and explain what happened, so the media is supposed to be the proxy. When the losing quarterback begs off from an interview request or fails to show up, that says something.
When things are tough is when depth of character is revealed. That's what this is about. It speaks to the decision making of someone in a leadership position.
Miles agrees, and he spoke about it with Jefferson.
"What we've done is to tell him it's the responsibility of the position," Miles said, "and he needs to consider that."
Jefferson strikes me as a fine young man who has a lot of growing up left to do. Minutes after LSU's 20-13 victory at Georgia, the week before the Florida game, he was all too eager to talk with reporters about the Gators.
“Florida put it on us last year, and we’re holding a grudge,” Jefferson said. “They were disrespecting us, doing stuff like punting the ball in the stands. We’ve been looking forward to this.”
I'll save the rant about how tired the "disrespecting us" angle is for another time, but the point is Jefferson didn't understand respect is earned, not taken away by someone else's celebration.
Lee, it seems to me, was always more about taking care of his business and letting others worry about theirs.
Crowton, who said in August both quarterbacks would play, has seen players emerge from their struggles better for them.
"The best thing about Jarrett Lee is that he’s not a freshman anymore," Crowton said at LSU Media Day. "When you have freshman starting quarterbacks who haven’t played, playing in some of those big games is a new thing. There is so much adrenaline going. They’re making errors. They’re not used to being booed. They aren’t used to having all that success when they are good either. They learn to be even-keeled."
How did that improve Lee as a quarterback?
"I think his preparation is a lot better," Crowton said. "He’s not sitting there absorbing information that we’re trying to teach him about the opponents. Right now he is extracting that information. It’s almost like he’s asking the question before I can tell him what’s going on because he knows what’s going to happen.
"There’s a maturity that happens that helps him to grow, so when he’s given the opportunity he can learn from the mistakes of last year and turn them into a positive. At the same time with the positives from last year, we want him to expand upon those. It’s exciting to watch him grow."
Maybe LSU's bottom-dwelling offense has reached a point when it couldn't hurt for Crowton and Miles to let the rest of us witness some of that excitement.
OK, disclaimer time. The only time I ever told an LSU coach, in a column, who should play quarterback was after losses at Auburn and Georgia in 2004 took the Tigers out of championship contention early in October. Play for the future, I said, and start JaMarcus Russell.
Russell started at Florida and threw two interceptions that put LSU in a big hole. Marcus Randall bailed out the Tigers, and the first thing Nick Saban said when he reached the interview room was, "Where's Carl?"
(I'm still in Baton Rouge. Where are you?)
I still believe LSU would have been better prepared at quarterback in 2005 had the Tigers strapped in and held on through Russell's growing pains by letting him learn sooner rather than later, but I understand why Saban didn't want to write off the 2004 season.
Until, of course, he did by mailing it in at the Capital One Bowl.
But let's get out of the interview room and onto the football field. Last season the offense was better, even with the pick-6s, than it is now. Last season Lee's quarterback rating, despite Andrew Hatch having half the starts, was comparable to Jefferson's through six games.
The defense was far worse, and Miles brought in new coaches to fix it.
The D is repaired. Thriving. What about the offense? What happened between early August, when Crowton said both quarterbacks would play, and September, when it became obvious the offense was handed to Jefferson?
He's a tremendous player, but he does not seem to fit or embrace much of what they've designed for this offense, nor many of the plays that could get the ball to the difference-makers more often and improve LSU's vertical game. The offense of running sideways is slowly going nowhere while LSU's speed waits to be fully utilized.
LSU's offense is stuck in a slow gear, and it has the horsepower for so much more. Jefferson's timing is off on so much of what this offense is predicated on, and that's a concern for the rest of the season.
If Crowton believes what he said about Lee and maturing through the steep learning curve and its stinging lessons, then isn't Lee ahead of Jefferson in that regard? Why isn't Lee given a shot with what has become one of the nation's least productive offenses, one that's worse than LSU's offense in 2008?
Because LSU designed an offense that wouldn't lose games instead of an offense that would win games. Because Miles is coaching scared. He endured his worst year in Baton Rouge, and he and his staff -- and his QB -- are gunshy.
By giving Lee the ball and running an offense that makes sense for this collection of talent, Miles would have more the type of offense that's in his comfort zone, that's in his DNA, but that would require taking a chance with Lee, and Miles is afraid of doing that.
It won't make the offensive line better, but ... one thing at a time. And maybe it would, by putting a better plan on the field.
This isn't 2008, when Lee was eventually set up to fail with dangerous play calling, including the first play on the script of the home game against Georgia. No, this isn't 2008. LSU is much better on defense. Besides, Jefferson doesn't have to disappear from the offense. That's Russell Shepard's job anyway, right?
Jefferson can make a difference in the right situations. He's proven that. Find a role and a plan that better suits him.
But LSU is pretending to play offense with him in the game. The Tigers are playing defense while they have the ball.
Maybe that's all Miles thinks they need. It's worked for many championship teams: Play strong defense, have a solid kicking game, and don't beat yourself on offense.
This team has too many weapons to have to settle for that. The Tigers can open things up with Lee if they take a chance and line up in formations suited for him and for their skill set.
Why not? Am I crazy for asking the question?
No more crazy than the Mad Hatter, the coach I enjoyed watching every time he said, "Let's go for it." The coach who didn't coach scared.
Seeing Jarrett Lee and THAT Les Miles make a comeback at the same time? What a ride that would be.
Carl Dubois has written or blogged about LSU sports since 1999. You can contact him at carl1061 'at' gmail.com.
Share: Page 1 of 10 Page 1 of 10