Malachi Dupre’s Leap Year

By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor

Malachi Dupre knows the names by heart.

Julio Jones. A.J. Green. Rueben Randle. Sammy Watkins. Before they were NFL stars, millionaires in their twenties, spokesmen for the world’s biggest brands and stars in the world’s most popular league, they were just like Dupre: the best prep receivers in the country.

That’s the improbable billing Dupre arrived with at LSU from John Curtis High School a year ago. Rated the top receiver in the country by every major recruiting service, Dupre took time to study the predecessors who’d previously earned that distinction, and what he found stays with him every day, every workout, every route, and every drill.

“Every other number one receiver has been a top draft pick,” Dupre says. “All the top receivers coming out of high school went to the NFL as top draft picks, first and second round, and made impacts early in college. So in my head, I’m like, I’ve got to make an impact.”

After a freshman season equally full of flashes and frustration, Dupre enters 2015 still seeking to make that impact. To take the next step in his career, to elevate LSU’s passing attack from the impotency of 2014, to reach the heights nearly every top target before him has reached, Dupre needs to take a giant leap in his sophomore season, from high potential to high performing. From moments of brilliance to consistent domination. From the No. 1 receiver in high school to the No. 1 receiver in college.

If past trajectories are any indication, there’s no question that’s where Dupre is headed. The only question is how high he can climb.

THIS SON WAS DIFFERENT. Mike Dupre had already raised his eldest two boys, Matthew and Vernon, on football. A former star safety at St. Charles Catholic and then at USL – “Not ULL,” he asserts. “U-S­-L,” with emphasis on the ‘S’ – Dupre’s first two sons took to the sport their father played rather quickly. Matthew, in fact, would walk-on and eventually earn a scholarship as a running back at ULL.

But Malachi…Malachi was, well, different.

“His interest wasn’t really there,” Mike chuckles. “He was more into outdoors: fishing, bugs, animals. He loved animals. He would be at football practice, and all of a sudden, the coaches would call his name because he would be over by the water looking at the ducks or something.”

What the youngest Dupre lacked in interest, though, he made up in energy.

“When I was younger,” Malachi says, “I was very hyper and different. It translated to the football field. I was not consistent.”

When he wasn’t duck-watching or bug-chasing, the five-year-old Dupre would often lace up his shoes on the wrong foot. He’d run the wrong direction at the snap of the ball, a lanky defensive lineman comical in his clumsiness. The TV in his childhood home was tuned into the National Geographic Channel, not ESPN. Insects were far more fascinating than footballs.

“Everybody tells me to this day: ‘We never knew sports would be in your future,’” Dupre says. ‘”We just put you out there because it was something you could channel all the energy you had – even though you weren’t good at it.’”

A change of scenery did little to progress Dupre’s athletic endeavors. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina from his home in New Orleans east, Dupre spent his fifth grade year in St. Louis, Missouri, living with his uncle. Long and leggy, he excelled on the basketball court, but on the gridiron, he was an apparent lost cause.

“The team I played for in St. Louis was really, really good,” Dupre says. “And I remember I was the same age as everyone on the team, and I was literally one of the worst ones. I just thought, Man, football isn’t for me. I played basketball at the time, and I was really good at basketball, so I thought that was my route. But I kept playing football, even though I never knew why.”

 

I’M NOT GOING TO PRACTICE TODAY, thought 10-year-old Malachi Dupre.

No way. Not a chance. Why should he? He knew exactly what would happen. He, cursed with great height but little bulk, would have to go against Leonard, blessed with great height and plenty of bulk; Leonard, son of the coach and made for football; Leonard, future star running back at LSU.

Yes, Leonard Fournette’s career intersected with Dupre’s long before they were both Tigers, but the former’s path to purple and gold glory was more obvious than the latter’s.

“I just remember Leonard being the biggest, fastest, strongest dude ever,” Dupre says. “Literally, he was like the same size he is now.”

Every practice started the same way. Dupre versus Fournette. Gangly versus gargantuan. Skin and bones versus meat and mass. Fournette with the ball, Dupre without it – and also without much hope of survival.

“We would just run into each other, full speed,” Dupre says. “Every day, Leonard and I would have to go head up, because I was the tallest and he was the tallest. And he killed me. Every. Time. I wouldn’t want go back. I used to be like, I’m not going to practice today, because I’m going to get run over by Leonard.”

But go back, Dupre did. He kept returning to Goretti Park, a not-quite-ready recipient of the punishment Fournette was dealing daily. Dupre wasn’t as physically gifted as Fournette – who was? – but genetics were slowly kicking in. The athleticism that flowed through the blood of his father and brothers coursed through his veins too. The tools were there, raw and ready for cultivating.

Enter John Curtis, where Dupre enrolled upon return from St. Louis. A football powerhouse in River Ridge – about a half-hour from Dupre’s childhood home – Curtis has churned out more Division 1 players per capita than just about any school in the country. Dupre arrived in sixth grade, just as his athletic abilities were beginning to blossom in full.

“I didn’t know how good they were in football,” he says. “But when I got there, I started to learn about the tradition and all the state championships they’d won. That’s when I really started to develop a real work ethic in football. That’s when I started to realize I was pretty good.”

From sixth through eighth grade, Dupre played every down for his middle school team – receiver on offense and safety on defense, alongside teammates who are now playing college football across the country: Henre’ Toliver and Dwayne Eugune of Arkansas; Ronald Green of Northwestern State; Matrell McGraw of Oregon; Raekwon James of Kent State. Running the same triple-option attack the high school squad used to win state title after state title, the Curtis middle schoolers were dominant. Yet while offense was in his future, Dupre, at the time, believed his destiny was on the other side of the ball.

“You think they don’t pass the ball in high school games at Curtis?” he asks. “Just imagine how much they pass the ball in middle school games. Never. It’s not like I was this dominant receiver, but at the same time, every time the ball was in the air, I made a play.

“But I never knew I was going to be a receiver. It was either safety or receiver. But, I started looking at my frame. Safeties can be tall, but I was long and skinny. So I thought, Just play receiver, stick out, make the most of my situation.”

It’s hard to stick out from the sidelines, though, a lesson Dupre learned all too well as a freshman. Despite shining in summer practices against the upperclassmen, Dupre rarely saw the field in the fall. He rarely even heard so much as a comment from his coaches, much less a compliment.

“I knew I possessed some talent: I could run, I jumped high, I could catch really well,” he says. “I was thinking, Why am I not on the field? I’m a freshman, but I feel like I’m better than all the receivers who are playing.”

Turns out, dad and coach had made a deal.

The same summer his son started practicing with the varsity, Mike Dupre asked Patriot head coach JT Curtis how Malachi was performing.

He’s really, really doing well, Curtis said.

Coach, Mike said, keep that between me and you. Don’t let him know that.

“JT and I always did the same thing,” Mike recalls. “We never told him how good he was. That kept him hungry and kept him wanting to keep working hard.”

Few games and fewer targets kept that hunger alive, and a taste of success as a sophomore – a few kick returns, a few touchdown catches, but no starts – had Dupre craving more.

“Even then,” Dupre says, “when I thought I was becoming a pretty good receiver, I thought, I must not be that good, if I can’t even play in high school.”

THERE ARE MORE COLLEGE COACHES at John Curtis Football spring practices than most high schools see all fall. When your roster is stocked with future SEC stars, it’s just the way it goes.

That’s how Malachi Dupre earned a scholarship offer before he’d even earned a start.

“That spring, a lot of guys older than me on the team were getting recruited heavily to big schools: Duke Riley, Dillon Gordon, who had just signed to LSU,” Dupre says. “A lot of colleges were down there that spring, and a lot of DBs on that team were getting recruited.

[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]”I just remember being around a million kids,” Dupre says. “They didn’t even know who I was. To this day, they say, ‘We knew who you were at camp.’ I don’t think they knew who I was when I got there.” [/su_pullquote]
“I was just killing it in practice. I started getting my first few scholarships. I couldn’t believe it. I was like any other person at the time. I got an offer, not really realizing what it meant. Out of nowhere, it just started happening.”

It might have been “out of nowhere” for Malachi, but Mike saw it coming just a few months before spring practice began. After a Friday night basketball game, Malachi showed up cold to the LHSAA Track & Field Indoor State Championships on a Saturday morning in January. With barely more than a jog and a quick stretch, Malachi set a state record in the high jump, soaring over a 6-foot-8 marker and into the realm of unlimited possibility.

The response from JT Curtis, seated next to Mike Dupre at that championship, was instant: What school do you want him to go to, because he’ll be able to any school he wants.

Before long, the offers were piling up in stacks higher than even Malachi could leap in a single bound. First, the likes of Colorado, Tulane, and Southern Miss, but soon, the SEC was calling, with Ole Miss the first to offer. Splitting his time between spring football workouts and AAU basketball – Dupre played for a 17U team as a 16-year-old with 2015 NBA Draft picks Kelly Oubre and LSU alum Jarell Martin, among others – Dupre was a rising but still relatively unknown product when LSU’s Elite Camp rolled around in July 2012.

“My only big offer was Ole Miss,” Dupre says. “My brothers were like, ‘Man, LSU camp is coming up. You can go and get a scholarship!’ I’m like, ‘I’m never going to get a scholarship at LSU,’ because I knew LSU and Bama only offer the cream of the crop, still not categorizing myself at that level.”

Dupre spent the week before LSU’s camp at an AAU hoops tournament in California, and after his flight landed at midnight the Monday he was set to show up in Baton Rouge, he had no intentions of making the hour’s trek west, especially when his brothers woke him at 7 a.m.

I’m not going! he said. Leave me alone! I’m tired.

“My legs were done,” Dupre remembers. “I’d just gotten off the plane. “I laid down, and tried to go back to sleep, but something hit me, like, Chi. Go. Just go.”

“We kind of had to drag him there,” his father adds.

So Vernon and Malachi made the drive, arriving by the time the mid-morning opportunity period – pitting the best of the best against each other – was just kicking off. Seven on sevens. One on ones. Coach Miles watching closely. The top prospects in the country were duking it out, but Dupre was little more than a 6-foot-3 spectator, lost in the shuffle, thinking,I’m better than all of these dudes.

“I just remember being around a million kids,” he says. “They didn’t even know who I was. To this day, they say, ‘We knew who you were at camp.’ I don’t think they knew who I was when I got there.”

They’d know soon enough. Nebraska wide receivers coach Keith Williams, a Dupre family friend who was then the receivers coach at Tulane and knew what kind of talent Malachi was, insisted that LSU assistant Adam Henry give him a run.

“They said, ‘Nah, we’ve got who we want,’” Dupre insists. “But finally they let me go.”

First matchup: LSU commit and five-star corner Tre’Davious ‘Shaq’ White, with fellow LSU commit Rashard Robinson on deck.

“I didn’t know who they were,” Dupre admits. “First up was Shaq. I caught a touchdown on his head, over him.”

White remembers it well, if not slightly differently.

“What he didn’t tell you is the one-on-one rep before that, he tried to run a comeback route and I pick-sixed him,” White laughs. “So I pick-sixed him and he came back and caught a deep ball over me, so he did a great job there. I remembered that.”

So, too, did LSU’s coaches, who made Dupre go again. This time against the equally long-armed and lanky Robinson.

“They made me go right back,” Dupre recalls. “Next was Rashard. I caught a bomb on him. Caught another touchdown on Tre’Davious after that. Then I jumped a 41.5 inch vertical. I got called into Coach Miles’ office right after that and got a scholarship, that day.”

So much for sleeping in.

 

NOVEMBER 22, 2008 WAS A FORGETTABLE DAY for most LSU fans. That Saturday, the Tigers, just a year removed from a national championship, dropped a 31-13 decision at home to Ole Miss, who outgained LSU 409-215. It was the second consecutive loss for LSU, which would finish the season 8-5 and unranked.

But Malachi Dupre will never forget that day. Even though it was long before he’d earn an LSU offer, it’s the day Dupre became a Tiger.

His childhood friend and neighbor, Chad Jones, was on the field, a star safety for LSU who, like Dupre, had been displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, though, the two were tight, despite their age difference. Jones would take Dupre down the road to Six Flags while their older brothers hung out, and it was Jones who invited Dupre to his first game in Tiger Stadium.

“I knew he was good at sports, but I didn’t know how good,” Dupre remembers. “After Katrina, when he came to LSU, that’s when I really started paying attention. I came to one of his games. It was my first time coming to an LSU game. They played Ole Miss. That’s when I really became an LSU fan. It was like he was famous.”

That taste of fame was enough to whet Dupre’s appetite for success, even at 13. He put himself in Jones’ shoes, imagining the view from the field rather than the view from the stands, but dotting his dreams with reminders of reality.

“Even then I was smart enough to know it was rare for anyone to make it to this level and play football at a college like this,” he says. “So that was a dream of mine, but I knew it was also the dream of a million other kids. I was real with myself, taking it in and realizing how big of a deal it was for him.”

So when Les Miles extended Dupre an offer just four years later after that memorable camp performance, the instinct to jump at it like it was tightly-spiraled pass to be pounced upon was difficult to resist. Other scholarship tenders followed, including Florida State, UCLA, and others from worlds Dupre never imagined would be within his grasp.

In the end, though – after springboarding his LSU camp success into recognition as the No.1 receiver in the country, sorting through dozens of high-major offers, and, of course, finally starting and starring at Curtis – Dupre remained home.

“When I had the opportunity to make it happen, I didn’t jump on it right away,” he says. “I was looking at all my options I had, and really was considering some other schools. But at the end of the day, I think me being from Louisiana and it being home, it was best for me to stay home.”

Expectations were high for the No. 1 receiver in the country as a freshman, but none were higher than his own. When he’d earned the top ranking among his class’ receivers, Dupre researched the players who’d been ranked No.1 at his position coming out of high school before him. He saw the names – Julio, A.J., Sammy – and knew he had to live up to the hype.

But success never comes easily, even for athletes like Dupre who specialize in making the impossible look effortless. After entering fall camp as a starter at wide receiver alongside Travin Dural, Dupre re-aggravated a hamstring injury that had sidelined him for the state championship game his senior season.

“This one in camp wasn’t as bad, and the season was four weeks away, so I’m thinking I can be back in time,” he says. “But even though I had way better treatment here and everything, it just nagged on longer.”

So long, in fact, that Dupre didn’t even travel to Houston for the 2014 opener against Wisconsin. When the team returned, Dupre had to work his way back up the depth chart, looking up at guys like Trey Quinn and John Diarse who’d surpassed him in his absence.

In the home opener against Sam Houston State, after watching Quinn start, Dural snag three touchdown passes, and Fournette strike a celebratory Heisman pose, Dupre finally got his chance, coming on in the fourth quarter and catching two passes for 23 yards from fellow freshman Brandon Harris, including the first career touchdown for both highly-touted rookies.

“Coach Miles came up to me,” Dupre recalls, forcing back a smile, “and he was like, ‘Congratulations.’ I remember this like it was yesterday. After I scored, I ran to the sidelines, and he grabbed me. He had a smile on his face. And he said, ‘That was the first of many. Get used to it.’ To this day, I remember those words.”

He’d need to the next week. Against UL-Monroe, Dupre barely played, receiving just a lone target from Harris in the fourth quarter. He voiced his frustrations with the coaching staff after the game, and they let him know his inactivity was merely a precaution to protect his hamstring.

That precaution paid off the next week. Though LSU would fall at home to Mississippi State, a late rally fueled by the budding Harris-Dupre connection infused the stands and the sideline with optimism for both the long-term and immediate future. Dupre finished the game with four catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter, nearly leading LSU back from a 34-10 deficit. With the performance, Dupre became the first freshman receiver at LSU to surpass 100 yards in a game since Jerel Myers in 1999

“That’s when I knew I was prepared as I could be,” Dupre says. “I knew had a lot of work to do, but I also knew I could play at this level.”

The next week saw Dupre – starting alongside Harris, the first freshman-quarterback starting tandem in school history – snag yet another touchdown against New Mexico State. But the passing game, promising with Harris and Dupre’s growing relationship, soon faltered. Harris flopped in his only start of the season at Auburn and never saw significant playing time for the rest of the year. Dupre, meanwhile, was limited to those few targets that came his way under the run-oriented attack headed by Anthony Jennings.

“Sometimes, he was a little frustrated because the ball wasn’t in the air as much as he thought it should have been,” Mike Dupre says. “I just said, ‘Control what you can control.’”

Like a 52-yard bomb against Auburn. He controlled that pretty effectively. Likewise with a 41-yard bomb against Texas A&M. Or, best of all, a one-handed grab in the corner of the endzone against Alabama, Dupre’s fifth and finest score of the season. High quality highlights, to be sure, but speckled throughout a season of frustration.

“My production went down as SEC went on,” Dupre admits. “That really wasn’t a direct effect of me. It was just the offense, our pass game struggled, which was frustrating also. I know everybody was frustrated by it. We definitely worked hard, and that will not happen this year.”

 

THE REST OF THE CAMPUS WAS SOUND ASLEEP when Dupre’s phone went off.

It was Harris. At midnight.

“I want to throw,” Harris’ text read.

“Alright,” came Dupre’s response. “Then I want to catch.”

And so the two met up and tossed the pigskin, Harris working on his dropbacks and accuracy, Dupre on his breaks and strides, each improving his own weaknesses and simultaneously strengthening a bond that already showed incredible promise in 2014. Though the majority of his snaps came with Jennings under center, Dupre was at his best with Harris, who connected with Dupre on eight of his 14 receptions (57%), 190 of his 318 yards (57%), and four of his five scores (80%).

“Brandon, it’s not a secret: he targets me,” Dupre says. “It just shows all the work we did before we got here, and when we did get here, we worked a lot together. I know the skills he possesses, and he knows the skills I possess.”

With Jennings likely suspended for at least the 2015 opener against McNeese State following a summer of off-field legal issues, Harris and Dupre should have a chance early in the season to re-establish the connection that served each so well as freshmen.

But success for Dupre can’t be measured by who is under center. He knows there are strides he has to take in his own game. He’s added weight in the offseason. Under the tutelage of new wide receivers coach Tony Ball, Dupre has refined his footwork and route-running. He’s even hitting the books harder, approaching his business classes with the mindset of improving every aspect of his identity.

“I feel like my freshman year in college was like my early years in high school,” he says. “It’s always been mental for me. My mindset is different now. Everything I do now is directed straight to translating to me creating space on the field, getting open, catching the football, and making blocks. So if I’m bench pressing, I’m thinking, Alright, this is me right now shooting my hands to hit that block. My mindset is gauged toward being better on the football field and being a dog.”

He’s even, at Miles’ request, talking more trash.

“‘You’re to the point you’re good enough now that you just need to catch balls and just talk,’” Dupre recalls Miles advising him. “‘Just be mean on the field.’ That never was me. But it is now.”

Talk is cheap, though, Dupre knows. It means nothing without action to back it up. A mindset won’t change LSU’s anemic passing game, which ranked last in the SEC and near-to-last nationally a year ago. Only hard work and repetition can do that, and that process began as soon as 2014 ended. With Cam Cameron watching closely, the entire passing game was re-tooled, stripped down to its basics and rebuilt from the ground up.

“As soon as the season ended last year, we knew that was completely” – Dupre pauses, searching for the right word – “terrible. It was terrible. Our passing statistics were awful. Especially for the talent we have on this team. If we knew we weren’t capable of it, that would be one thing. But we know the kind of talent we have and the capabilities we have.”

Those capabilities were on full display in the 2015 Spring Game, as LSU tossed for 410 yards and four scores. Dupre, split wide on some plays and in the slot on others, snagged four grabs for 112 yards and two scores of his own, including a 35-yarder on a full-extension dive that showcased his leaping ability and versatility.

“The Spring Game was signs of things to come,” Dupre says. “It’s really going to translate over to the fall. I think the sky’s the limit for us this year passing the football. The passing game will be tremendously better. Last year, it was stop the running game, and you were going to beat us. Sorry, but that’s what it was. This year, we’re going to have to show people they have to respect us passing the football.”

That step from disrespect to respect, from incompetency to mastery, is a huge one, a giant leap, but it’s one the Tigers must take if they are to realize the national championship aspirations brought about by that 2014 recruiting class, headlined by the nation’s No. 1 running back (Fournette), receiver (Dupre), and dual-threat quarterback (Harris). And who better to help them take that leap than Dupre, he of the 41.5 inch vertical, the 6-foot-8 high jump, the bug-obsessed, hyper-active child who somehow ascended to the hyper-competitive star-in-making he is today.

Dupre knows: it’s time. Time to live up to the billing as the No. 1 receiver in the nation, just as A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Sammy Watkins did before him. Time to elevate his game, to make the transition from latent star to legitimate one. Time to shine.

The challenge is in front of him, the opportunity, like a fade in the corner of the end zone, up for grabs, Dupre’s for the taking. All that’s left to do is let him loose, and see how high he climbs to make the grab.

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