After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he’s had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we’ll talk about some of those issues.
This week, we finally discuss the oft-maligned LSU passing game, but from the other side. Namely, the need for Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural to develop into consistent, every down, big-time receivers.
Now, as you may, or may not, be aware, LSU had some issues with passing the ball on offense last season. Most people lay those issues at the feet of quarterback Brandon Harris. And make no mistake, a number of them do go on the quarterback’s shoulders, in addition to offensive coaches, etc…
But his top targets could also be better. Sophomore Malachi Dupre and junior Travin Dural were the Tigers’ Nos. 1 & 2 targets, catching a respective 43 passes for 698 yards with 6 touchdowns and 28 passes for 533 yards and three scores.
Both players were heavily recruited -- Dupre a five-star, Dural a four -- and with a struggling quarterback it’s easy for the narrative to be that LSU’s rampant bad quarterback play holds back talented receivers.
But that excuses both players for their own inconsistencies and inadequacies.
Dupre caught just 55 percent of the passes thrown his way last season, whereas good receivers are well over the 60-percent threshold. He continued to struggle with physical coverage, drops and was oddly inconsistent at adjusting to catchable passes, even at high-pointing jump balls.
Dural caught just half of his targets, and probably dropped even more balls than his teammate (it’s hard to find reliable drop charting, but Bill Connelly has the advanced receiver stats catalogued in a spreadsheet here). And again, it’s important to remember that a drop doesn’t just cost a player a catch, but it could also cost him future opportunities at the ball by cutting drives short, etc...
The Eastern Michigan game was the tipping point for both players. As you can see in this video below, Dural dropped three balls in the first half alone, including two potential touchdowns, while Dupre let a potential score go through his hands as well.
Both players improved over the course of the season; Dural rebounded with couple of big third-down catches the very next week against South Carolina, and made several big-plays on deep balls against Alabama. Likewise, Dupre had one of his best games as a Tiger against Florida matched up on star cornerback and 2016 first-round draft pick Vernon Hargreaves.
They averaged 9.1 and 9.5 yards per target on the season, which illustrates both their value as big-play threats and how often LSU tried to get them the ball farther down the field. Dural, in particular, is at his best using his speed -- while Dupre is a little more versatile on the underneath routes. But catch rate is a good number to watch for that consistency. It’s not like they have to improve dramatically. Baylor’s Corey Coleman caught just 61 percent of his targets last season, and USC’s JuJu Smith-Shuster was at 65. A number of players were in the 70s, like TCU’s Josh Doctson or Bama’s Calvin Ridley, but that big of a jump may be too much to expect. Sixty percent seems much more doable.
And while Dural missed spring practices rehabbing his nasty hamstring injury from late in the season, Dupre had a great one, really headlining a group that was one of the big stories of the session under new position coach Dameyune Craig. He looks noticeably larger, and a number of reporters and other players remarked on him being a much more vocal leader, whereas Dupre was known for being more withdrawn in the past.
Don’t get me wrong here; quarterback is definitely the more important part of this equation. More often than not, the passer makes the receiver instead of the other way around. But it would be unrealistic to expect Harris to become the kind of QB that can elevate mediocre receivers. It would not, however, be unrealistic to expect Harris’ top two targets to meet him halfway. And that could yield big dividends for everybody involved.