On the move: LSU football has shifted its focus to dual-threat QBs

While working out at an LSU camp a few weeks ago, quarterback Justin McMillan ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds.

A few hours later, LSU offered him a scholarship, and he committed.

Think that speedy 40 time was a factor?

“I think it helped,” he said with a laugh, “just a little bit.”

LSU’s quarterback position is undergoing a makeover. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and head coach Les Miles are gathering the tools to reshape the position, and it’s clear what the goal is.

“They’re changing a lot,” McMillan said. “They’re starting to change their quarterback. It’s still an NFL offense, but he’s starting to get more mobile quarterbacks.”

Despite going 20-6 over the past two seasons, LSU’s offense lacked an element many teams have these days: an unpredictable and versatile quarterback, a playmaker with another dimension.

While a prolific passer with a strong arm, Zach Mettenberger limited the Tigers’ options in 2012 and ’13. Now LSU is looking to expand on them.

The Tigers are certain to have a true dual-threat starting quarterback in 2014 for the first time in eight years. The only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster are dual-threat, athletic QBs, too: freshman Brandon Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings.

The future is becoming clear: The two most recent QB commits for the next two years — McMillan, a 2015 prospect from Cedar Hill High in Texas, and Feleipe Franks, a four-star 2016 recruit from Wakulla High in Florida — are dual-threat guys. And the two quarterbacks who left the team this spring — Stephen Rivers and Hayden Rettig — are pocket passers.

Rivers’ father, Steve, even said his son left because of LSU’s shifting direction at the position.

“I don’t know if they sit in a meeting and say, ‘We don’t want any more pro-style quarterbacks who can’t get out of their own way,’ ” said Mike Scarborough, publisher and recruiting analyst for TigerBait.com, the Rivals.com affiliate covering LSU. “But the dual-threat, mobile quarterback … that’s what is out there.”

It’s sweeping football. Always a constant at the high school level — where coaches tend to put their best athletes behind center — the dual-threat QB continues to find more and more traction in college and the NFL.

Six of 14 projected starting quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference this season could be classified as dual-threat players, and two of the eight pro-style starters have good mobility.

As many as 10 of the 32 NFL teams could start a quarterback in 2014 considered a dual-threat, and many have found success with speedsters at the top level in the game: Seattle with Russell Wilson, San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, Carolina with Cam Newton and Washington with Robert Griffin III.

“You see more young dual-threat quarterbacks pushing their teams into the playoffs,” said Rob Rang, an NFL draft analyst for CBSSports.com. “The NFL is gravitating more and more to kind of a basketball on turf. It makes more sense to put the ball in the hands of whoever can make the most big plays.”

LSU hasn’t had a true dual-threat player starting behind center since JaMarcus Russell in 2006. Ryan Perrilloux took minimal snaps in 2007, and Jordan Jefferson wasn’t a true dual-threat QB. (Recruiting services deemed Jefferson a pro-style quarterback out of high school, and he ran for fewer than 30 yards per game in his four-year career.)

So what does all of this mean?

“A lot more read-option,” Scarborough said. “There’s been some packages in there (in the past) but, to me, I think it’s going to be a part of what LSU does. Not just situational, call a timeout and do something like that here and there. I think it’s going to be a legitimate part of the offense.”

Miles has recruited each type of QB, balancing the dual-threat guys with pocket passers. That, though, is beginning to change.

In Miles’ 10 recruiting classes, LSU has signed six dual-threat QBs and seven pocket passers. Three of the past four to sign have been dual-threat guys. Throw in commits Franks and McMillan, and that number swells to five of the past six.

Much of that is Cameron’s influence, said Sonny Shipp, recruiting analyst for Geaux247, the 24/7 Sports affiliate covering LSU. Cameron, entering his second year, makes much of the decisions when it comes to recruiting quarterbacks, Shipp said.

“I think what it boils down to is the way the game has evolved. They don’t want someone who’s a statue back in the pocket with a big arm,” Shipp said. “Mettenberger had a lot of positives, but they want someone a little mobile that can make plays with his feet.”

And maybe they can’t find another Mettenberger. Scarborough called him an “aberration.”

“Guys like (Mettenberger) don’t grow on trees,” Shipp said. “They don’t come around as often.”

The lack of big-armed QBs is being felt throughout the nation, said Scott Kennedy, Scout.com’s national director of scouting.

Why? For one, Kennedy said, baseball is taking away many of the strong arms. More than 100 pitchers — many out of high school — were picked in the first five rounds of the MLB draft two weeks ago. There are 40 rounds in all.

“I think baseball has robbed football of some of our elite arms,” Kennedy said. “It’s a lot easier to find guys who are fast than (who can) throw a ball on a line 50 yards. I can shake a tree in New Orleans and find a kid who runs a 4.4 (40-yard dash).”

Those kids have been given more chances to play quarterback at higher levels — college, the NFL — than in the past, Rang said.

It’s no secret that the majority of dual-threat quarterbacks carry a similar characteristic: Many of them are black. The days of zeroing in on a player with the historically typical attributes — tall, slow and, more often than not, white — are gone.

The position is open to everyone.

“I think we’re seeing more players who are athletic not necessarily being pushed out to other positions,” Rang said. “Teams are giving them a chance. I think in the past, NFL teams especially, will push kids out of the quarterback position. We’re seeing a growing willingness to at least try out those types of athletes to see if they can do it.”

Success stories are everywhere, most notably Hesiman Trophy winners Newton and Griffin.

Could LSU’s position shift at QB produce another one? Maybe.

“I kind of see the direction Coach Cameron is going in, a little more athletic,” McMillan said. “When I went there to the LSU camp, I envisioned myself there because I could see myself in the offense.”