LSU sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings made a statement last season when he replaced an injured Zach Mettenberger and led the Tigers on a 99-yard, game-winning touchdown drive in a come from behind win against Arkansas to close the regular season.
With a comeback victory and a bowl game under his belt, Jennings seemed poised to take the reigns and took steps in the offseason to ensure he was prepared.
“I have taken the biggest strides forward by just coming every day and trying to get better with the offense, leadership and mechanics,” Jennings said. “It’s really about getting better every day, and I am ready for the challenge.”
But the statement Jennings made last fall lost some of its luster this spring upon the arrival of freshman quarterback Brandon Harris.
Harris out-performed Jennings in LSU’s annual spring game, leaving the quarterback position in limbo and leaving Jennings uncertain of his role for the upcoming season.
In fact, LSU coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have stopped mentioning his name in press conferences. Instead, he is referred to as one of many quarterbacks jockeying for the starting job.
“There’s no such thing as a backup here,” Cameron said. “There’s a first starter, a second starter, a third starter, a fourth starter and a fifth starter. We’re not going to keep anybody in that room that doesn’t meet that expectation.”
But the literal race of arms between Jennings and Harris has remained so close that Miles has refrained from naming a starting quarterback until days before the Tigers’ season opener against No. 14 Wisconsin.
Even Harris struggles deciphering what separates the two.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you,” Harris said. “He’s a guy that can run just like I can run. He’s a guy who can throw just like I can throw. I don’t know anything that may separate us from each other. I’m taller, he’s shorter. I don’t know.”
To ensure a lack of speculation, Miles has avoided using either quarterback’s name when referring to their performances in preseason scrimmages.
To add one more layer of mystery to the situation, neither quarterback has been made available to talk to the media since LSU Football Media Day on August 10.
“There are days when one quarterback shines a little bit more than the other quarterback,” Miles said. “Then there are those days where the other quarterback shines, and the other guy can’t get out of his shadow.”
Jennings will have to find a way to separate himself from Harris if he wants the honor of starting for the Tigers, but that has proven to be easier said than done.
Cameron said the deciding factor may not even be a tangible asset.
“For some reason, two guys with the same stats, same height, same everything can trot out there and one guy makes everybody else play better, and the other guy just kind of plays in a bubble,” Cameron said. “The problem is I think we have at least two guys who can go out and inspire others to play well.
LSU is no stranger to quarterback controversy. Marcus Randall battled Matt Mauck in 2003 and JaMarcus Russell in 2004. More recently, Miles did not shy away from splitting minutes between Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson in 2010 and during LSU’s run to the BCS National Championship game in 2011.
“The way we work together, everybody gets better,” Cameron said. “The room gets better and one guy goes down, you can come out and put the ball right there with 99 and three-quarter yards to go, and we don’t blink. We go right down the field and throw the winning touchdown.”
Even with his starting spot on the line, the high stakes and intense competition haven’t jaded Jennings, who said he and Harris share a mutual respect, support each other and havee same goal: to lead the Tigers to victory.
“We push each other to get better each day,” Jennings said. “I wish the best for him, and he wishes the best for me. We always push each other to the extent we didn’t think possible.”
Should Jennings win the job, he will have earned it, something Cameron said will only make him better.
“[Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator] Norv Turner made the statement, ‘I have never seen a quarterback benefit from not earning the job’,” Cameron said. “I’m confident that Les [Miles] knows what a guy needs to do to be his quarterback. Sometimes you can quantify it, sometimes you can’t.”