TAMPA, Fla. — Connor Neighbors approached Anthony Jennings after the true freshman backup led LSU on a 99-yard game-winning touchdown drive over Arkansas in the regular-season finale.
“It’s hard to do what you did,” Neighbors said he told Jennings.
Jennings quickly shot back, Neighbors said: “Yeah, man. I was just nervous.”
Those nerves, players say, are long gone.
LSU (9-3) held its 10th bowl practice Friday with Jennings as its offensive leader, and the true freshman is noticeably different. He’s confident, a host of LSU players echoed after practice from the team hotel, the Westin Tampa Harbour Island.
“His demeanor and his tone,” Neighbors said. “In camp, he’d talk and kind of be quiet in the huddle. Now, you know, he’s loud and his tone is more direct.”
Jennings is set to make his first career start for the Tigers in the Outback Bowl against Iowa (8-4) on New Year’s Day. Through 10 practices, players have recognized at least one change in their new passer.
“Confidence,” defensive end Jermauria Rasco said. “He’s more comfortable with himself. When you’re not the main quarterback, you’re just a role player. Now you have everything on your shoulders. I know that’s one thing he’s gained a lot these last couple of practices.”
Some players said that Jennings’ eyes were “wide” during the first few bowl practices. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.
The Georgia native is barking in the huddle and commanding an offense that LSU insists won’t change with the mobile and elusive Jennings under center.
“At practice,” Neighbors said, “you can just see him stepping up and not being arrogant but (instead), ‘I’m that guy now, and I’ve got to step it up.’ ”
No scrambling adjustments
LSU’s receivers admitted last week to having to adjust to Jennings’ passes, and running back Jeremy Hill said he’s adjusting to different handoffs from a QB who’s 3 to 4 inches shorter than former starter Zach Mettenberger.
Are LSU’s offensive linemen having to adjust to?
Not really, said right guard Trai Turner, because LSU’s scheme isn’t changing.
“Still the same plays. Same offense,” he said. “We wouldn’t even have enough time (to install a new offense). Same plays we’ve been doing. Same scheme. Going to see the same alignments. Nothing’s changed too much.”
Still, Jennings has the ability to run, and players said last week that more option and read-option plays were being run in practice. Mettenberger rarely left the pocket.
Jennings’ scrambling ability may change what linemen do but not how they think, Turner said.
“You don’t want to think that. His mindset is not to scramble first,” he said. “I don’t want to say, ‘OK, I’m going to block my guy, but I’m worried about my quarterback running.’ You can’t think like that. Can’t have too much on your mind. If it does happen, if he takes off, it’s something I’m going to have to react to. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be on the field.”
Coach Les Miles said Friday that Jennings is “exploring the pocket a little bit more” than Mettenberger did.
“If in fact the protection breaks down, he’ll come out of there,” he said.
NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick, a 23-time Sprint Cup Series race winner, will perform the coin toss at the Outback Bowl, the bowl announced. Harvick is the driver of the No. 4 Outback Steakhouse Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. … LSU and Iowa players visited the Tampa-based theme park Busch Gardens on Friday. According to photos from the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, players and fans were allowed to feed raw meatballs to a live tiger. Saturday’s trip is to a local bowling alley, where the squads will compete against each other.