SAN DIEGO — Cam Cameron was determined to prove his point, no matter how many laps around the LSU practice fields in the sweltering Bayou humidity it took. The message Cameron was aiming to teach his precocious 18-year-old early enrolled quarterback was that, no matter what, he could not keep taking that dang false step.
"It’s gonna get us beat," Cameron kept telling the kid. "You’re gonna be late."
Brandon Harris had been doing it ever since he arrived in Baton Rouge. Heck, he did it in high school too. But those days were over — although Cameron’s message actually reached more than just his young QB.
"We don’t take a punch step for a right hander," Cameron said. "We pivot on our left foot. We think that allows us to get the ball out faster, whether it’s off of one step or a quick three or a quick five."
Harris got away with being a step more deliberate in high school. In the SEC, Cameron warned him, that extra step was going to muck everything up and probably would translate into some Pick-6s. So the coach started keeping tabs on Harris’ footwork. Every false step in every rep meant an extra lap after practice.
One day, Harris’ buddy, fellow blue-chipper Malachi Dupre, a five-star wideout from New Orleans, came to watch practice and stood with the coach for about two hours as the QB kept running and running and running.
"It was a real wake-up call," Dupre said. "No more nonsense. Coach Cameron told me he was going to run until the last person was off the field, whether it was us or the water boy, and it was us. I was feeling bad for (Harris) out there."
Harris, who is proud to report that he had a 3.6 GPA in his first semester at LSU, was also pleased to say that, "Once the spring game came, there was no more false step. After those laps, I improved it real quick."
Harris made quite an impression during the Tigers’ spring game, throwing for three touchdowns while running for 75 yards and scoring a fourth TD on the ground. That showing had fueled speculation that the 18-year-old Harris may overtake sophomore Anthony Jennings in the chase for LSU’s vacant QB job taking over for Zach Mettenberger.
Dupre and Harris retold the story of the QB’s punishment while in San Diego for a week in late May as they took part in private quarterback coach George Whitfield’s ‘Shark Week.’ The two 18-year-old buddies from Louisiana, born on the same day (Oct. 12), were the youngest players in a group that included Heisman contenders Bryce Petty from Baylor and Connor Cook from Michigan State, as well as Notre Dame’s Everett Golson.
The LSU freshmen were looking to do everything they could to get up to speed so they can make an impact in the SEC this fall. Lord knows the Tigers, a perennial SEC West powerhouse, have an opportunity awaiting them since they not only lost Mettenberger, but also leading receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry and leading rusher Jeremy Hill.
And, for as talented as Harris and Dupre are, they aren’t even the most celebrated of the Tigers freshmen. That honor would go to 225-pound tailback Leonard Fournette, a guy who college recruiters compared to Adrian Peterson.
"There is a sense of urgency with us," Harris said, who played at 182 pounds last year but is already up to 196 now. "You don’t have time to develop guys like you used to back in the day. Now you have guys that have to come in and play right away. That’s the deal where if you take advantage of the opportunity of graduating early, and take advantage of learning what you can, when you can pick the brains of guys out here who have had success and been in BCS bowls (Petty and Golson). You have a guy over there (Cook) who beat Ohio State, beat Stanford and won all these big games."
WR Malachi Dupre discusses a play at the whiteboard while QB Brandon Harris looks on.
The term ‘Freak’ could apply to any one of the three Tiger newcomers on offense, whether it’s Fournette, the super-sized sprint champ, or the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Dupre, who won the state’s long jump, high jump and triple jump titles, or Harris, who may have the most powerful arm of any QB in his class and says his fastball has reached 96 miles per hour.
It’s bringing in kids like this that has enabled Les Miles to win 44 games in the past four seasons despite what seems like a mass talent exodus every winter to the NFL. But Miles may never have had a team this young or this talented at three key spots on the offense.
"This is just a case where we have the talent and ability to come in and play right away," said Dupre. "We’re really honestly needed because we lost so much. Hopefully, we can lead our team to some victories. Leonard’s the No. 1 player in the country. He gets a lot of attention, and it’s well-deserved because he works so hard, and he is ready."
Asked how excited he is by the chance to work with all of the young talent, Cameron laughed.
"It’s exciting because there really is no other option," he said. "We ain’t playing for second place around here. Developing young players and young talent is really not that difficult. The challenge is developing them and winning at the same time in the first year. That’s the challenge, because there is so much they don’t know.
"In the NFL, a rookie comes in, Joe Flacco (with the Ravens where Cameron had been the OC) starts his first game and we beat the Cincinnati Bengals. But Joe Flacco didn’t have to go to class all week. We’re gonna open up against Wisconsin and our guys are going to go to class for the first time in the fall. The academic demands combined with the athletic demands is significantly more difficult than it is for an NFL rookie. That’s why fall camp is gonna be so important, because the expectation here is to win. It’s not just to build and get better."
Cameron, a long-time NFL coach, was well-versed in bringing new players in on a Tuesday and having them ready for his offense to contribute by Sunday. It helps, he says, that he runs "a player-friendly" offense, one that he has built from the roots of Don Coryell, John Robinson and Ernie Zampese. It’s an attack that is known for doing damage in the vertical passing game, something that should suit Harris well.
Anthony Jennings, a sophomore, completed 13 of 29 passes last season. He also flew out to San Diego to spend a week training with Whitfield, but he came the week before Harris and Dupre arrived. In the winter, Jennings and Harris were just two of five scholarship QBs. However since then, former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden has shifted to wideout while Stephen Rivers transferred to Vandy and Hayden Rettig left for Rutgers.
In Jennings and Harris, Cameron now has two much more dangerous running threats than he had in Mettenberger and probably since more than a dozen years ago when the coach helped turn his QB at Indiana, Antwaan Randle El, into the most dangerous player in the Big Ten.
"Anthony and Brandon are both so young and they’re really good athletes," Cameron said. "They’re probably sub 4.6 range. Brandon is really gonna improve as a runner and Anthony is really gonna improve as a passer. He ran a lot in high school but did not throw the ball vertically. Brandon was the opposite. He threw it vertically all the time. He’s gotta learn to check the ball down, while Anthony has to learn to push the ball down the field vertically."
Cameron said some of the big challenges for Harris are just becoming more consistent and more accurate and more polished. He said he often reminds him that John Daly had to learn how to chip and putt, and for Harris to win as a quarterback in the SEC, "You gotta do a lot more than having people ‘ooh and aah’ about how you throw the football."
Dupre is certainly capable of making people say ‘ooh and ahh’ with his athleticism. He did just that one day in Southern California where the QBs were throwing a drill that had a receiver walking the width of the gym while a defensive back was attached to them holding a board to limit the target area. Dupre proceeded to snatch seven straight passes one-handed despite the completions becoming more and more distant throws.
For as gifted as Dupre is, Cameron raved about the receiver’s "mental approach.” Said Cameron, “On Signing Day when he made the announcement that he was coming to LSU, he said it’s time to get ready for Wisconsin. The guys that play early have that kind of approach. It’s a motto here: ‘Young guys play big roles in big games,’ so guys come in with that expectation."
The Tiger freshmen have gotten that message too.
"Cam says there’s no ‘developmental’ guy. You either have it or you don’t," Harris said. "That makes you come and work harder. The deal is seize the moment, mature fast and you’d better grow up and have mental toughness.
"To me, there is no difference between a senior who has taken no reps and a freshman who has taken no reps. You either got it or you don’t, and that’s how they look at it. And I love that approach."