2008 Football Preview: The Wide Receivers

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LSU's wide receiver corp starts with our clear #1 and #2 receivers, Brandon Lafell (left) and Demetrius Byrd (right).  Coincidentally, they are also #1 and #2 in jersey number, but I ascribe no significance to that.

Last year, Early Doucet was our best receiver when he was healthy, which unfortunately wasn't all that often.  He led our team in receptions with 57, and was 3rd in yards with 525.  Lafell and Byrd were very dangerous in their own rights.  

Byrd is the speed guy.  The deep threat.  He averaged 17.7 yards per catch and led the receivers in touchdowns scored with 7, all despite being only a minor part of the offense in the first 4 games, when he caught only 4 combined passes.  Even though he's the speed guy, his size is not bad at all at 6'2" and 195 pounds.

Lafell is the all-around receiver.  At 6'3" and 194 pounds, he makes a pretty good target, and his hops are outstanding, giving him an edge over defensive backs on most high balls.  He led the team in receiving yardage with 656 yards with 4 touchdowns on 50 catches.

Lafell struggled at times last year, as he went through a period of time with some inexplicable drops.  After one particularly disastrous misplay that led directly to a costly interception, a lot of fans called for him to be benched, but Les Miles and Gary Crowton stuck with him and let him work his own way through his problems.  The team was rewarded as Lafell was great down the stretch.

Despite Lafell's problems in the middle of the season, he was our most consistently productive receiver, catching a pass in every game, and catching at least two passes in every game except the opener.  He was at his deadliest against Virginia Tech, when he caught 7 passes for 125 yards in that rout.  He also caught a key touchdown pass against Ohio State in the BCSNCG.

These two guys can play, and it looks like they'll make a very solid #1 and #2 receiver.  After that, things get... interesting.  Not bad, but... interesting.

I am of the opinion that every sophisticated offense needs at least 3 reliable and productive receivers.  Gary Crowton is of the opinion that you need more than that.  I look back on our best teams and I see teams with 3 wide receivers that got the bulk of the catches.

2001: Josh Reed (94 catches), Michael Clayton (47 catches), Jerel Myers (39 catches); no other wide receiver got more than 7.

2003: Michael Clayton (78), Devery Henderson (53), Skyler Green (48); no other wide receiver with more than 9.

2006: Dewayne Bowe (65), Craig Davis (56), Early Doucet (59); no other wide receiver with more than 5.

2007: Early Doucet (57), Brandon Lafell (50), Demetrius Byrd (35); no other wide receiver with more than 13.

So, in my mind, the key question is who will be the third productive wide receiver?  The second question is will there be a 4th productive wide receiver?  Let's look at some candidates:

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Sophomore Terrance Toliver showed moments of brilliance as a true freshman.  However, he also showed some very rough edges and made some costly mistakes.  He made his presence known by catching a key pass near the end of the first half of his first game against Mississippi State.  The catch set up a late 1st half touchdown that broke open what had been a close game and led to an epic blowout.  

He scored touchdowns in each of the next two games and had an LSU season high 71 yard touchdown catch against Louisiana Tech.  It was our longest play from scrimmage of the season.  After that Tech game, however, he did not catch another pass.  In fact, the last two passes thrown his way were intercepted because Tolliver made the wrong cut.  Earlier in the season, he was called for offensive pass interference against Kentucky on a play that nullified a touchdown.  (The call was questionable, for what it's worth.)

I don't mean to sound down on Toliver.  The fact is, freshmen make mistakes, and it is the rare freshman who can come in and play wide receiver like a veteran.  Dewayne Bowe, Craig Davis, Early Doucet, and Skyler Green didn't set the world on fire as freshmen either, but grew into very productive receivers. 

The sky is the limit for Terrance Toliver, and now is the time for him to go for it.  He has great length and athleticism at 6'5", but is a little light for his frame at 180 pounds.  He has great speed, though, and I wouldn't want him bulked up too much and ruin his speed.  He led the team last year in yards-per-catch at 24.9, and if you take out that 71 yard reception, he still would have led the team with over 19 yards per catch. I think everything is there for him to have a breakout season of, say, 40 catches and 600 yards or more if the QB play is good.

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Jared Mitchell hasn't set the football world on fire thus far in his career.  He may have been pressed into play a little early, and perhaps would have benefitted from a redshirt year.  Instead, he heads into his junior year with 15 career receptions for 168 yards and 0 touchdowns.

In 2007, he was at his most productive when Early Doucet was out, catching 12 of his 13 balls while Doucet was rehabbing.  After Doucet came back, Mitchell didn't catch another pass.

Mitchell is short and stocky for a receiver at 5'11" and 192 pounds.  He is a speedy guy, but being about 3 to 5 inches shorter than you'd like to see in a receiver is a big disadvantage.  

Mitchell is, of course, a two-sport athlete, and that's where I really see hope for increased production.  Sometimes, a two-sport athlete has success in one sport and the confidence gained carries over into another sport.  Take for example Bennie Brazell, the former undersized but very speedy wide receiver at LSU.  Bennie did next to nothing in his first 2 seasons at LSU on the football field.  He was fast as lightning, but he had terrible hands and didn't catch a pass, dropping several others.

Well, he went to the 2004 Olympics as a hurdler.  He made it to the finals of his hurdling event, and while he didn't medal, he acquitted himself very nicely for a guy who wasn't even a track pro.  The Olympics set him behind in football but he managed to catch a pass for 20 yards that year, and when the next season rolled around in 2005, he caught 13 passes for 292 yards and made some very important grabs for that team.  He was drafted in the NFL draft after that season.  His success in track gave him the confidence boost he needed to have success in football.

Jared Mitchell had a lot of success in baseball this year, batting in the 2-hole for the squad that made it to the World Series and had that massive winning streak.  The confidence gained from that success may go over to the football field as well.  Plus, the added experience won't hurt at all.

I would like to see Mitchell double his production from last season.  I don't expect the world, but if he can get 25 catches, including 8 or 10 in SEC play, and score a touchdown or two, that would be excellent and very helpful.

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After Toliver and Mitchell, we move on to prospects and suspects.  From left to right above, we have junior Chris Mitchell, sophomore Ricky Dixon, and junior RJ Jackson.  Mitchell has 6 career catches; Dixon has one; Jackson doesn't have any.

Chris Mitchell (unrelated to Jared) is another undersized speedster who perhaps got on the field before he was ready.  Ricky Dixon is a big (6'2" 210#) target who is perhaps a step too slow to be a quality SEC receiver.  Jackson is a mystery.  He was a highly coveted recruit that many people were very high on, but he hasn't really been able to establish a role on this team outside of special teams, where he has done well.  He is a converted running back, and is a little short and thick for a wide receiver, but he has shown to be a very good blocker.  

There's no telling who among these players, if any, will step up their production.  If we can't get a solid #5 receiver out of this group, watch out for the receiver prospects Chris Tolliver (no relation to Terrance), Jhyryn Taylor (yes, he's related to Curtis), Deangelo Peterson, or possibly Tim Molton or Deangelo Benton if they qualify (probably yes on Molton, probably no on Benton).

Whew.  This was a very long entry.  Anyway, I think overall the wide receiver corps will be a strength for this team, but no position is more reliant on another position (quarterback) than is wide receiver.  We need to get the QB play to maximize the WR play.

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