Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hatch Opening

Give Les Miles credit.

If an approaching football season were Christmas and Miles its CEO, he’d find a way to create at least a hint of uncertainty as to whether it would be Santa Claus or someone else coming down the chimney this time to deliver the goods.

LSU’s season opener is at 4 p.m. Saturday against Appalachian State in Tiger Stadium, and all indications are sophomore Andrew Hatch will take the first LSU snap at quarterback. That doesn’t mean Miles has publicly ruled out redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee or fully explained freshman Jordan Jefferson’s role.

“You’ll see how we play them when we show up in the stadium,” Miles said last week.

Lee missed three preseason practices because of an ankle injury and missed the bulk of practice time last week because of back spasms.

With Jefferson still learning the offense, that would seem to all but give the starting job to Hatch by default.

If Hatch has any idea he’s the clear-cut No. 1 or will be by Saturday, he’s not telling.

“I’ve just been focusing on running the offense, being out there with the team and getting comfortable, getting ready to go,” Hatch said.
After a practice last week, Miles said Hatch was more ready to play than a week or two earlier, but he passed up every opportunity to rave about Hatch if he were so inclined.

“I like Hatch,” Miles said.

And, “We’re just improving. That’s all.”

Nobody should be surprised Miles hasn’t posted a depth chart on the side of the LSU football operations facility. He still hasn’t really named a starter for the 2005 season opener, for his first game at LSU.

During preseason camp three years ago, Miles said he would identify and reveal his starting quarterback the Thursday before the first game.

Before that Thursday arrived, Hurricane Katrina led to the postponement of the North Texas-LSU season opener.

The scheduled second game, against Arizona State, was moved to Tempe, Ariz., and Miles stayed mum about the pecking order at quarterback.

Finally, after ESPN received the necessary information from LSU for the on-screen graphics for the telecast of the game, the rest of us learned for sure JaMarcus Russell would take the first snap.

That in itself wasn’t the upset of the century, but Miles played his preseason cards close to the vest, insisting Matt Flynn was right there with Russell in the hunt for the job.

Last week Miles made it clear he wants the competition at every position, including quarterback, to continue right up to game day. It’s more apparent than ever Miles sees that as a necessary component of making a team better.

Still, he has no trouble delivering head-scratchers in interviews, explaining himself with sentences that could take hours to diagram and interpret, as he explains the merits of competition for playing time.

It almost seems like part of the design, his obfuscation.

“At the places that guys are playing, both guys are playing,” Miles said, “they’ve earned that right and shown that they’re as capable or more capable than others, and so they’re going to have the opportunity to get on the field and continue to compete, and with performance.”


Translation? Probably that the competition will continue beyond the season opener, that performance in early-season games will be a measuring stick for each player.

That’s why it’s easy to imagine a different starting quarterback for the Southeastern Conference opener Sept. 20 at Auburn than for the Appalachian State game Saturday.

There is a lot of Les Miles in his team. Ask a player about Andrew Hatch, and you’ll get an answer about all three quarterbacks — with emphasis on two of them.

“They’re both doing great,” LSU backup center Ryan Miller said. “He and Jarrett have had a great camp, and even Jordan. With the young guys, they’re just doing a phenomenal job. They’re both getting in there and getting after it. They both want it. They always want it.
“You always love to see that as an offensive lineman, somebody that cares that much, that’s real dedicated all the time to helping this team out.”

The subject goes from one quarterback to two quarterbacks to three quarterbacks, then back to two quarterbacks — and that’s probably the way Miles wants it.

Yet, the closer we get to Saturday in Tiger Stadium, the more it appears Hatch is the player who will first enter the fishbowl of scrutiny as LSU’s starting quarterback.

“I’m ready for that,” Hatch said. “I’m prepared. I’ve been working hard. I’m excited to play. I’m a competitor. I’m going to just be ready to go, and I think that’s how the whole team really looks at it.”

LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton agreed with Hatch’s self-analysis, especially about his drive to succeed and win at everything.

“He’ll race you to the drinking fountain, as one of our trainers has told us,” Crowton said. “He’s just so competitive to the little details of things.”

A recurring theme in preseason is Crowton’s eagerness to see the quarterbacks in game conditions.

Not only does that include how they handle their mistakes, but the more team-oriented dynamic of how they deal with their teammates’ errors.

Junior and senior quarterbacks have seen it all, Crowton said. They’ve seen the starting quarterback trip up and get ripped by the coach, the media and fans.

They know they’re walking into a situation where a receiver might run the wrong route, but the quarterback will be blamed for the incompletion or interception.

It’s all put at the feet of the trigger man, and that’s not easy for a younger player.

“It’s kind of a shock,” Crowton said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m accountable for everybody? I didn’t drop that ball or tip that ball or turn the wrong way or miss the block that led to a sack.’ Everything more or less falls on those guys.”

Crowton said he thinks he knows how Hatch and Lee will react, but he’s never quite sure until two or three games into a season.

“I’ve seen guys get their feelings hurt so bad that they get too conservative,” Crowton said. “At the same time, I’ve seen guys that throw six picks one week and come back and throw for 400 yards the next.”

The best quarterbacks see their mistakes and resolve to do something about them.

“They just keep playing,” Crowton said. “They just bounce back.”

Everybody feels criticism, and it hurts everybody, Crowton said. No one is immune.

“It’s how you respond to it that makes you tough,” he said.

Crowton said the right leader of an offense will take the right critiques to heart and learn how to get better at the specifics of his position.

“Those are the guys that end up being outstanding,” he said.

The Big Reveal won’t come in the form of an announcement from Miles, but rather from the way Hatch, Lee and Jefferson develop during the season.

It’s on the field where the right stuff shows up and tells the coaching staff who can do the job.

“That’s what you won’t see until the game day,” Crowton said. “I can see it in practice to a certain extent, but the game day — when 92,000 are out there and the TV cameras are on you — that’s when it’s fun, when you can see that a guy has it.”

Every serious football fan has seen quarterbacks pointing fingers and yelling at receivers after something goes wrong. The timing and geography of pass routes must be precise, and there’s a rhythm to the drop back and physical dance of pass protection.

It all must work together, or there will be problems. The signal caller who throws his teammates under the bus, so to speak, might find it difficult to throw anything after that.

“How the quarterback treats those players around him can give those other guys confidence in believing in the guy behind them,” Crowton said. “There’s importance in that.”

In January when Miles raised the crystal football that symbolizes the BCS national championship trophy, the assumption was that Ryan Perrilloux would be LSU’s quarterback this season. His dismissal in May changed everything.

Because Perrilloux was suspended during spring practice, Hatch and Lee got more repetitions. They entered August camp as the two main candidates for the job.

Hatch said he thinks he’s come a long way, but even he can’t help but steer the conversation elsewhere when the question’s about him.

“I think coach Crowton has done a great job of working individually with us quarterbacks, really each day, correcting anything we need to correct, improving on everything,” Hatch said.

“Coach Miles always gets us ready to play — every little thing. He pays great attention to detail out there and really helps us be the best we can be so we can help our team.”

Hatch said he and Lee get along well.

“I think we push each other each day,” Hatch said. “We help each other too. If you have a question or need to check on something, you can check with each other and just help the team get better that way.”

Hatch said he loved LSU from the moment he set foot on campus. He said the 2007 dream season consistently reaffirmed that for him.

“It was the whole year, from the preseason on,” Hatch said, trying to identify one moment when he knew he was in the right place.

Each game was so exciting, the preparation, the support, the hype and everything. I just really got a feel for that.

“The Florida game may have been, if you want to pick one, kind of the big one, but it’s really hard to pick just one moment.”

A more defining moment for Hatch may be less than a week away, or this chapter might unfold throughout the course of the season.

Time will probably tell sooner than a winking Les Miles will.

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