How a 'skinny as hell' freshman receiver rocking No. 32 became Justin Jefferson, AKA the 1st-round prospect you shouldn't doubt
BRADENTON, Fla. — In the middle of a Friday afternoon in the first week of February, Justin Jefferson starts his post-weightlifting recovery process near the entrance of IMG’s Performance and Sport Science Center. He jokes around with the other NFL Draft hopefuls who he’s been training with since he arrived in Bradenton 2 days after he helped LSU win the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Shadow Boxing is a popular downtime activity for the draft prospects. It’s a fun, social 1-on-1 game in which the goal is to look in the opposite direction that your opponent points. If the pointer points up and the opponent looks down, the opponent wins that round and then becomes the pointer. It goes back and forth until the opponent looks in the same direction as the pointer. Call it part-psychological instincts, part-muscle memory. It’s getting in your opponent’s head and picking up on physical cues. LSU classmate and IMG workout partner Grant Delpit insists that Jefferson is the best at it. That’s not all that surprising considering how well Jefferson dominated 1-on-1 matchups during his prolific 3-year career in Baton Rouge.
That ability was what helped get Jefferson to where he is on this particular afternoon. That is, training at a world-class facility surrounded by 1st-round NFL Draft prospects like Delpit, K’Lavon Chaisson, Kristian Fulton, D’Andre Swift, Patrick Queen and others. Jefferson is taking full advantage of similar training and nutrition resources he had at LSU that allowed him to go from a lightly-recruited late enrollee to one of the NFL Draft’s top receiver prospects in less than 2.5 years of real time.
After the Shadow Boxing wraps up, Jefferson rips off the tape he had on his wrists that were used for power cleans. He’s minutes removed from a workout focused on lower body explosion that in addition to power cleans included parallel squats (Jefferson worked up to 300-plus pounds in sets of 3), single dumbbell jump squats and TRX band exercises. Jefferson grabs an orange Gatorade and is about to head to the film portion of the day when he’s stopped by IMG Speed Development Coach and former LSU track star Morgan Wells, who runs the pre-draft training program.
“Jets!” Wells calls over to Jefferson.
Wells explains to Jefferson that a visiting writer wants to speak to him before he leaves. What Wells and “Jets,” as Jefferson is called by his teammates, don’t know is that they’re about to shed some light on a question that the writer hopes to have an answer to by day’s end.
How does Jefferson have any doubters left?
There’s really not a clear answer as to why Jefferson’s path to LSU happened the way it did. A few little things ultimately added up to one of the more bizarre recruiting misses in recent memory. Jefferson’s story served as a reminder that even in this social media world of recruiting with resources like Hudl and 7-figure budgets from Power 5 programs, players can still fall through the cracks.
Jefferson’s emergence as a 2-star recruit — he finished in the 247sports composite as a 3-star recruit but ranked outside the top 2,000 prospects in the 2017 class — was well-documented.
Surely he’s not the first player to overcome a low recruiting ranking to achieve college stardom and garner 1st-round interest, but even compared to those dime-a-dozen stories, Jefferson’s path is still a bit baffling.
If anything, one would think the little brother of a pair of former LSU players would get the benefit of the doubt. Jefferson was the kid running around the LSU facility catching passes at an early age because his brother Jordan Jefferson was a 3-year starting quarterback at LSU and his other brother Rickey Jefferson played defensive back for the Tigers. As this 247sports piece outlined, Justin Jefferson was also buddies with Les Miles’ son, Ben, and he’d even sleep over at the LSU coach’s house.
Though LSU scholarships don’t automatically go to every LSU legacy, if there was ever someone who had an in with a big-time program, it was Jefferson.
The on-field performance wasn’t lacking, either. Jefferson started as a junior at Destrehan High School (La.), which sits just off the Mississippi River about 24 miles west of New Orleans. At a 5A school, he played in the class with the best athletes that the state of Louisiana had to offer. As a senior, he put up 956 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. He also excelled on the Destrehan track and field team. Still, though, the 6-2 receiver lacked the Power 5 interest he was hoping for.
“A lot of those times, I definitely doubted myself,” Jefferson told SDS. “Like, ‘What else do I need to do?’”
So, where was the doubt?
Part of it could’ve stemmed from the belief that Jefferson was a lock to follow in his brothers’ footsteps at LSU once he got that offer. The offer process might’ve been held up by Miles getting fired in the middle of Jefferson’s promising senior season of high school.
Northwestern and Tulane were the only FBS schools who made a play for Jefferson. The irony in that was those universities were both highly regarded for their academics, and Jefferson needed to complete 1 more high school course to avoid the JUCO route. Could that’ve been what explained the lack of notoriety during his recruitment?
“Everyone points to the grades and qualifying to make sure everything was in place,” said former LSU running back and ESPN Baton Rouge radio host Jacob Hester. “But you can still give guys like that 5 stars.”
Hester and Jefferson had something in common. Both of them were Louisiana natives who earned the last LSU scholarship offer in their respective recruiting classes. The Tigers made a habit of getting major production from those players. That club also includes Lloyd Cushenberry (2016), Foster Moreau (2015), Russell Gage (2014), Duke Riley (2013) and Deion Jones (2012). With the exception of Cushenberry, who left LSU with a year of eligibility remaining and is considered a mid-round prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft, all of those players were drafted.
But Jefferson didn’t show up on LSU’s campus looking like a lock to continue that trend and become an NFL Draft prospect. Part of the aforementioned doubt surrounding his recruitment could’ve also been related to his slender, 175-pound frame.
“He was skinny as hell,” Delpit said.
On top of that, Jefferson’s late academic qualifying meant that he didn’t enroll until after fall camp began in August. By the time he arrived, there were only so many numbers available, so Jefferson accepted … No. 32? Despite what his number suggested, nobody would’ve looked at Jefferson’s physical attributes and confused him for a fullback. But when he got in between the lines, he embodied a fullback mindset.
It was Jefferson’s blocking during his true freshman season that allowed him to avoid a redshirt. Even though he only had 1 catch for 4 yards, buying into LSU’s blocking schemes helped him see the field in 6 games. Quickly, he turned heads in practice and showed that he did have the makings of another classic “LSU last offer success story.” Those who watched LSU closely knew that Jefferson was in line for big things in 2018 with the NFL departures of Gage and D.J. Chark. Jefferson said he paid close attention to how those guys ran routes, lifted weights, studied film, etc.
After just a year on campus, it was his turn to step into a starting role as a sophomore. With that came another change.
“Ain’t no way he was gonna be starting and wearing No. 32,” Delpit said.
On Christmas night, Hester arrived in Atlanta for LSU’s Peach Bowl matchup against Oklahoma. It was 3 days prior to the Tigers’ Playoff semifinal showdown when Hester had a conversation with LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph to get up to speed on how the team was preparing.
Joseph: “Watch No. 2 this week.”
Hester: “I watch No. 2 every week.”
Joseph: “No. Watch him this week. He’s mad. He’s angry.”
It didn’t hit Hester until after the fact that Joseph rarely, if ever, spoke like that. Yet Joseph made a daily Peach Bowl practice habit of coming up to Hester and saying “Hey, No. 2. I’m telling you. Just watch him. I promise you something’s coming.”
That was because No. 2, AKA Jefferson, once again fell through the cracks.
After a regular season in which he posted 88 catches for 1,207 yards and 14 receiving touchdowns, Jefferson was left off the Coaches All-SEC team entirely and he only made 2nd-team Associated Press All-SEC (1st-team AP All-SEC selection DeVonta Smith and 1st-team Coaches All-SEC selection Jerry Jeudy were both selected instead of Jefferson).
That was while teammate Ja’Marr Chase racked up the hardware during awards season (he won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver and was a unanimous All-American). But perhaps the bigger source of frustration was that Jefferson wasn’t an All-American like Oklahoma’s Ceedee Lamb, who had the same amount of receiving touchdowns (14) and 1 more receiving yard than Jefferson through 13 games, but Jefferson had 30 more catches.
Instead of December being an awards show circuit like it was for many of his LSU teammates, Jefferson took his snubs personally.
“Those were the things I didn’t get,” Jefferson said. “I definitely kept that in the back of my mind.”
What happened after that was indeed, as Joseph predicted, something. Like, something out of a video game.
Jefferson was, in every way, unstoppable. It didn’t matter what route he ran or what Oklahoma defensive back was on him. Everything worked. Records were shattered, as were the Sooners’ hopes of containing the LSU offense. Jefferson’s performance included Peach Bowl records in catches (14), receiving yards (227) and receiving touchdowns (4). No player had ever caught 4 touchdown passes in a New Year’s 6 Bowl or a Playoff semifinal game … and Jefferson did that in the 1st half.
Peach Bowl Final🍑
Joe Burrow (LSU)
29/39, 493 passing yds, 7 TDs
5 carries, 22 rushing yds, 1 TD
Justin Jefferson (LSU)
14 catches, 227 receiving yds, 4 TDs
LSU will face either Ohio State or Clemson for the National Championship!pic.twitter.com/IAYW7mwvpZ
— Boom, It’s Football! (@BoomItsFBALL) December 29, 2019
Jefferson, had he not been relegated to the sidelines for the fourth quarter of the 63-28 blowout win, said he could’ve had 300 yards and 6 touchdowns that day. Oklahoma was content to use bracket coverage on Chase, the more decorated receiver, which left an angry Jefferson with more than enough room to operate.
“(Oklahoma) thought they could handle him just covering him 1-on-1,” Hester said. “In my opinion, there wasn’t a defensive back in the country who would’ve had success covering him one-on-one. When teams did that, he made them pay.”
Oklahoma could’ve looked at what happened 3.5 months earlier when Texas attempted to cover Jefferson 1-on-1 with a safety. On 3rd and 17 with 2:36 remaining and LSU clinging to a 37-31 lead, the ever-slippery Jefferson got separation from Texas safety Caden Sterns, and Joe Burrow connected with him cutting across the middle of the field for a dagger 61-yard touchdown.
After LSU clinched its national championship, Orgeron admitted that play was when he knew that they could win it all. But while that might’ve served as a burst-onto-the-scene moment for the Tigers, that was hardly the case for Jefferson. In that game alone, his route tree was everywhere. Whether that was catching passes in traffic over the middle of the field or high-pointing a rare back-shoulder seam route from the slot, Jefferson’s full skill set was on display.
QB Joe Burrow est en 🔥 et l’attaque des Tigers est méconnaissable !
Passe de TD de 21 yards pour WR Justin Jefferson. TD LSU.
Texas 7, LSU 20 pic.twitter.com/i72Ps5v1lM
— TBP College Football (@thebluepennant) September 8, 2019
The combination of Burrow’s improvement, Chase’s command for defensive attention and Joe Brady’s system were all factors that worked in Jefferson’s favor in 2019. But as Hester says, Jefferson is “the furthest thing from a system guy.” Why? Well, he caught 12 of 13 contested targets in 2019, which was a higher rate than any draft-eligible receiver in the 2020 class (via PFF). Also, look at 2018. Jefferson, in LSU’s pre-Brady offense, was still plenty productive. That year, he somewhat quietly racked up 875 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns as Burrow’s go-to target.
“Coming out with a mediocre offense and still getting over 800 yards, that was definitely big for me,” Jefferson said.
He’s right. Had he not had that 2018 season, who knows what the pre-draft conversation would be like. There would questions about his next-level potential away from Burrow, Chase and Brady.
But now, the questions among the draft experts are about whether Jefferson is 1st-round worthy. It depends where you look. The latest mock drafts from ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner didn’t have the LSU receiver in the 1st round (Delpit said any mock draft without Jefferson in the 1st round is “messed up”). But ESPN’s Todd McShay had Jefferson going to the Packers at No. 30 while Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had him landing at No. 24 to the hometown Saints.
“You saw that production for him really over the last year and a half,” Miller told SDS. “Now this you see him doing things in pro-style offense running routes that the New Orleans Saints run. That’s actually the dream fit for Justin Jefferson … we’re gonna hear people talking about teams like Green Bay, Kansas City and a lot of those late-1st round teams that need a wide receiver.”
Miller, who was admittedly a bit of a Jefferson doubter until he saw him in person for the first time at the SEC Championship, compared him to a Davante Adams or a Keenan Allen — someone who has elite route-running skills to get separation combined with the hands to catch passes all over the field, but isn’t perceived as a physical freak.
Jefferson’s draft stock could be swayed by how well he runs at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Believe it or not, there’s still skepticism about his straight-line speed.
“It’s so funny that everyone assumes that they know what Justin Jefferson is going to run (the 40-yard dash) and that that’s gonna be the reason he doesn’t get drafted as high,” Hester said. “One, I never really saw a defensive back be able to keep up with him and if he gets in underwear and doesn’t run the time that you think, that doesn’t matter to me because he creates separation in every route that he runs. You put him in the slot, you put him outside, it doesn’t really matter.
“He’s got incredible game speed, he runs incredible routes, he knows angles, he knows exactly where to get on the football field.”
While the game film certainly boosted Jefferson’s draft stock, his top priority in Bradenton is preparing for that all-important 40-yard dash. He’d prefer not to provide any reason to fall through the cracks again.
As the weightlifting portion of the draft hopefuls’ day comes to a close, Wells takes some time with the visiting writer to discuss Jefferson’s progression. Wells works with all the IMG-based prospects on speed training 3-4 days per week. The areas of improvement for Jefferson are common — cleaning up the front-side mechanics and making sure the transition from acceleration to maximum velocity won’t put him at a biomechanical disadvantage in Indianapolis.
The importance of that 40-yard dash number for Jefferson’s draft stock isn’t lost in Wells. After all, the guy’s nickname is “Jets,” “so he’s gotta be able to run,” Wells says. Wells gets feedback of expected 40 times for all the IMG draft prospects before training begins. For Jefferson, that number was somewhere in the mid-4.5 to high 4.5-second range. “Anything better than that is gonna be a win for us,” Wells says.
After the late arrival to IMG — a certain national championship prevented Jefferson and his LSU teammates from getting to Bradenton as early as the other draft prospects — Jefferson embraced Wells’ program. Wells is confident that the mid-4.5 number will be bested and that Jefferson will “make himself some money in Indianapolis.”
“The focus shifted, and the maturity has come,” Wells says. “Even in a short amount of time, I’ve seen the way he’s trending to go and just developing as an athlete, how he needs to take care of his body, how he needs to eat and how he needs to train.”
Keeping on weight doesn’t come as easy to Jefferson as it does to others. At IMG, he’s at 200 pounds. Back when he started fall camp prior to the 2019 season at LSU, he sat at 198 pounds … until he lost 6 pounds in practice that day. But thanks to the program put in place by longtime LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt, that once “skinny as hell” freshman never missed a start in the last 2 years and he had at least 3 catches in 25 of those 28 games.
Durable, reliable, coachable, versatile … the list of adjectives that describe Jefferson is long. Whether he goes in the 1st round or not, that won’t change. What will change are the expectations and his surroundings. He’ll have another stage to prove himself on.
In a way, he’s back in his element. While Jefferson is looking forward to playing anywhere, he’s also a competitor who wants to be the first receiver drafted. Mock drafts have that feat belonging to either to Jeudy or Lamb while the likes of Henry Ruggs III and Tee Higgins are also candidates to get drafted before Jefferson.
Just as he did when he got to LSU after his strange recruitment, any mock draft that doesn’t have Jefferson as the first receiver selected is considered a source of motivation. That mindset was what got him to this point.
“You doubt Justin Jefferson,” Hester said, “and it’s only gonna piss him off and he’s gonna play even better.”
Why would anyone doubt that?