By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
There’s a different energy emanating from the LSU wide receiver room these days.
Everybody has been in a good mood through the course of the spring practice season, which wraps up Saturday with the annual spring game at Tiger Stadium.
Players are more engaged on the practice field and the meeting room, says D.J. Chark, the position group’s top returner and co-elder statesman.
It’s the nature of receivers, no matter who they are, to have some Keyshawn Johnson in them. Each and every one of them, at least from time to time, want to be given the damn ball. Seriously, it’s right there in their job title.
Too much idling and they can become spectators. Attention atrophies. Intensity dulls. Interest wanes. Some will even grow frustrated enough to leave — as LSU knows quite well. John Diarse, Trey Quinn, Tyron Johnson and Kevin Spears have all bolted for more pass-happy offenses since the end of the 2015 season.
Before Chark’s emergence last season, you’d have to go back to 2012 to find the last time three different LSU receivers caught 20+ passes in a season. Between spotty quarterback play, conservative play calling and dynamic duos, there just weren’t enough touches spread around.
So why is the oft-underutilized, least-experienced position group LSU has on offense feeling a renewed sense of purpose? Because, they say, with Matt Canada calling the shots, things are different now.
“It completely did a 180,” Chark said. “You don’t really have time to complain about not playing now because you’re playing.”
“(The difference) will be real noticeable because you’re going to see a lot of guys who didn’t play much last year who’re going to get an opportunity,” Derrick Dillon added. “And we’re going to make big plays. They’re finally seeing what we can do, and it’s opening their eyes.”
This spring is almost a perfect storm for LSU’s crew of underclassmen pass catchers. They start fresh with a new position coach in Mickey Joseph. And he, in turn, has plenty of blue chip talent to work with.
There’s also opportunity to be seized. Nobody on the roster besides Chark caught more than 10 passes last season — fullback J.D. Moore (10) is the team’s second-leading returning receiver. Russell Gage’s five grabs stand as the second most among returning wideouts.
But the true difference is Canada.
Canada takes to devising an offense like a master carpenter. He sizes up the abilities of his personnel and devises a role for every tool in the proverbial box — and, if the timing is right, he won’t hesitate to throw it at an opponent. He’s renowned for handing off to wide receivers and throwing passes to offensive tackles.
“We’ve used a lot of personnel groupings,” quarterback Danny Etling added. “Gotten a lot of guys involved. I think morale has improved because of all the involvement across the offensive side of the ball.”
Dillon has been one of the largest beneficiaries of the new scheme.
Along with Gage and Chark, who play everywhere, he’s worked in the slot role that handles so much of the offense’s trademark presnap motions. LSU also has big-bodied receivers like Drake Davis, Dee Anderson and Stephen Sullivan to play on the outside.
Listed at 5 foot 11 and 181 pounds, Dillon, a Franklinton native, appeared in just five games last season and didn’t record a catch. He came out of Pine High School as an explosive athlete, but he was a prep quarterback who knew full well he’d need time and seasoning to transition to receiver.
While a group of receivers came and went, Dillon honed his craft. He worked hard at technique and route running, getting more comfortable coming in and out of breaks at the top of his routes — an improvement he credits to Joseph.
Transferring never entered his mind, Dillon insists.
“Knowing I was converting to receiver, I had to learn, so I was just sitting back and waiting my turn while learning from the older guys,” Dillon said. “I’m a whole lot different (from last year).”
Gage says he has broken some long runs on jet sweeps already this spring. It brings him back to his high school days a bit, just sprinting to the edge and trying to make people miss.
And no, he doesn’t particularly care if the ball is thrown or handed to him. Either way, he sees an opportunity to go out and make a play.
“The things he’s been doing during spring have been phenomenal,” Chark said of Dillon. “Making plays on the ground and in the air. He was patient. Never complained. And that’s the attitude you want from a guy. So when you see him make his plays on Saturday, you can’t help but be happy for him.”