A lot of ink has been spilled at the wide receiver and tight end positions in recent years, especially the former. From recruiting rankings to all of the expectations for receivers coach/passing game coordinator Billy Gonzales last year (of which I'm partially guilty), the theme has been underused talent.
And while it's true, it's a somewhat simplistic answer to a complex situation. Between the issues under center, inexperience and flaws in the talent that were often magnified, the expectations were just out of whack. There were a lot of things wrong with a receiving corps, last year. It featured a talented senior with inconsistent hands (the now-departed Terrance Toliver), a converted quarterback in his first season at receiver, an injury-plagued sophomore, two true freshmen and Rueben Randle, who despite his occasional brilliance, wasn't quite ready for the burden of being the top guy as a sophomore.
Gonzales took his share of heat, but in the end it was too much to expect him to produce brilliance out of a relatively green group while the quarterback play continued to deteriorate. But I'm a believer. By every account (player and coach alike), Gonzales is a high-energy guy that connects with his players (and recruits) and demands and attention to detail. It's difficult to gauge route-running when the ball is not on time, and despite a few cat-calls, blocking was every bit as tough as we've come to expect from LSU receivers this decade. I think we'll see the level of receiver play rise to the level of the quarterbacks this season.
2 Junior Rueben Randle - 6'3, 205: 53 catches for 544 yards (16.5 ypr) and 3 TDs.
10 Junior Russell Shepard -6'0,190: 33 catches for 254 yards (7.7) and 1 TD, 32 rushes for 226 yards (7.1) and 2 TDs.
21 Junior Chris Tolliver - 6'1, 185: 2 catches for 35 yards.
86 Sophomore Kadron Boone - 6'0, 205: 4 catches for 52 yards.
82 Sophomore James Wright - 6'2, 200: 2 catches for 21 yards.
81 Freshman Armand Williams - 6'3, 200: redshirted in 2010.
5 Freshman Jarrett Fobbs - 5'11, 190: redshirted in 2010.
We'll start with the ever-stoic junior from Bastrop. Randle has every tool NFL scouts will be looking for. Size, speed, quickness and strong hands. He had an inconsistent first few games but made plays consistently when asked in the season's second half, including his only 100-yard effort against Alabama, plus a number of key third-down receptions. For the first time in his career, he's the veteran of the outfit. I don't know that he'll ever be vocal leader, but if he can continue to improve his play, he can lead by his actions. As much as he might not have been ready to be THE guy early on in 2010, he started to look the part around November.
Fellow junior Chris Tolliver is a former four-star recruit with a reputation for deep speed, but up to now has struggled with the playbook and injuries, including concussions. With four underclassmen and two more talented freshmen coming in, it may be a now or never situation for him.
Kadron Boone and James Wright were able to get on the field quickly last year due partially to Tolliver's injuries, but also by picking up the Tiger receiver blocking tradition pretty quickly. Especially Wright, who saw the field as the lone wideout in some of the power sets. Boone has a little more speed to his game, and could see some time on kick-off returns. Both are naturals for the X and Y spots, or the outside receiver positions when LSU lines up in three-wide sets.
The redshirt freshmen are actually under the gun a little bit with the 2011 rookies coming in this summer. Jarrett Fobbs is a natural slot receiver, which means he's behind Russell Shepard and Jakhari Gore, and Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham will have a shot at jumping him as well. Armand Williams was a player everybody knew would be a project, and so long as Randle, Boone and Wright stay healthy he can continue to fill out his lead frame and round out his skills. He's a former Louisiana high-jumping champ, and could develop into an excellent red-zone target in time.
That leaves us with Shepard.
I don't know that there's ever been a player that's hit campus with more hype than Russell Shepard. And that's saying something in the youtube era. We were all able to spend more than a year watching the highlights of all those 70- and 80-yard touchdown runs in Houston 5A football and we weren't all sure what he was going to be, but we were all sure he was going to be a one-of-a-kind offensive threat. In two seasons, that's generated 791 yards from scrimmage on 115 total touches and 5 touchdowns. Underwhelming, to say the least.
Why? It's a popular topic with a number of answers, the easiest of which is the general offensive malaise of the last two seasons. Gary Crowton at times seemed determined to force-feed Shepard the football in the most awkward, or limited of settings. Mostly in the form of option pitches, screen passes or jet sweeps. There have been a few direct snaps, but you could probably count them on your fingers. Certainly no passing attempts. Eight other teams in this conference have found ways to incorporate something resembling a Wildcat offensive set in the last few years, yet it's consistently eluded Crowton. The result has been about four touches per game at right about 7 yards per.
Quarterback play has definitely been a factor. Lord knows Jordan Jefferson over/underthrew or miss-timed nearly every screen pass he attempted last season, and when completed the play was usually so disrupted that Shepard had very little room to operate. But the speedy junior has had his own issues. Though his engaging personality has been a hit with fans and made him a team leader, there's also been talk that his preparation hasn't always been what it should be. And if body language is any indicator, he seems to let every mistake in a game get to him, whether it's a fumble, dropped pass or missed attempt at finding daylight. That's something only Shepard himself can change.
So how do things get better schematically? Finding a way to better incorporate Shepard has to be on Steve Kragthorpe's list. It was thought Gonzales would bring that to the table, and through the first three games last season, that seemed to be the case. It doesn't have to be overly complicated and it doesn't even necessarily have to involve him catching more passes. Just get him the football. At Florida, Percy Harvin carried the ball as often as he caught it, and the majority of those receptions came on swing passes out of the backfield, screens and drag routes. It wasn't that he wasn't taught the traditional 9-route passing tree, Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen simply realized they didn't need all of those routes to keep him involved regularly. And with Gore, Fobbs and eventually Odell Beckham and Paul Turner waiting in the wings, developing some sort of receiver/running back combo slot position doesn't have to be a Shepard-only thing.
Conclusions: The depth chart will probably shuffle quite a bit over the next sixth months. Jarvis Landry will almost certainly have an early impact at one of the outside receiver slots - he's that good. But for now, look for Randle and either Boone or Wright to man the principle X and Y positions, with Shepard in the slot. Consistency is going to be at a premium. With all of the emphasis on the quarterback position, Gonzales will be pushing these guys hard to develop as reliable complements. Tolliver and Williams will serve as the principle backups outside, with Gore and Fobbs behind Shepard. Don't be surprised if Gore makes a real push for playing time, whether as a return man or as a specialty player on offense.
19 Senior Deangelo Peterson - 6'4, 245: 16 catches for 198 yards.
83 Senior Mitch Joseph - 6'5, 265: 5 catches for 51 yards.
85 Senior Alex Russian - 6'4, 250: compiled no stats.
88 Junior Chase Clement - 6'5, 261: 2 catches for 42 yards.
47 Junior Tyler Edwards - 6'4, 250: 1 catch for 10 yards.
41 Freshman Travis Dickson - 6'3, 245: redshirted in 2010.
84 Freshman Nic Jacobs - 6'5, 265: redshirted in 2010.
That may seem like a pretty crowded tight end depth chart, but keep in mind that Alex Russian is a deep snapper with almost no role on offense, and that five names will be gone from this list by 2012.
Speaking of unrealized potential, Deangelo Petereson is down to one final year to make an impact. Ever since he moved over to the tight end position after outgrowing wide receiver, we've all been expecting it. A well-built specimen, there's no doubt Peterson has the speed and athleticism to be a dangerous receiving target. And at times, he's even been somewhat serviceable as a blocker (and a runner). But last year that amounted to a lot more sizzle than steak. Peterson battled injuries, drops and some major mental mistakes (remember the fumble versus Tennessee that was the result of reaching out for a first down he was several yards short of?). Plus, at times he appeared to shy away from contact, which drew more than a little ire from fans.
Maybe a more solidified role in the offense will help. Kragthorpe turned under-sized tight end Garrett Mills into a dangerous weapon at Tulsa (1,235 receiving yards in 2005), if the passing game does develop, there could be an increased role for Peterson as an H-back/red-zone target if he's ready for it.
Mitch Joseph has been the designated blocking tight end the last three seasons, and handled the role well. He's a big guy with the strength to move his man around, and he was sneakily effective, albeit in a very limited role, as a receiver when asked. The other senior of the group
Chase Clement and Tyler Edwards split the difference between Peterson and Joseph, serving as extra blockers in short-yardage sets and capable receivers when asked. They just weren't asked very often. Clement has a nice combination of size and athleticism, and could be an intriguing target if there are enough passes to go around.
Travis Dickson, younger brother of former Tiger Richard, could see some time in a fullback/H-back role, and Nic Jacobs is the likely successor at the designated blocker position. He might even grow into an offensive tackle eventually.
Conclusions: This is another position where the new wrinkles Kragthorpe brings to the offense will mean a lot. At Tulsa he built an entire passing attack around the tight end, and he's worked with people like Dan Henning that have also made liberal use of them. There are some varied talents here with well-defined roles, and at the top I don't expect much to change. Peterson will be the designated receiver in the passing sets and will flex, line up in the slot and even split out wide in some goal-line sets. Joseph will remain the designated blocker. The interesting development will be how a guy like Clement develops going forward. He's got the right mind-set for blocking and has some potential as a receiver as well. He's well set up to manage the starting gig by himself in 2012. But the steps on that path really begin this spring.