BATON ROUGE, La. – “Speed kills” is one of those rare universal sports phrases that applies to every sport in almost every situation.
For years, speed specialists on the gridiron were small players with track backgrounds, like former LSU running back Trindon Holliday, who measures in at 5-5 and 161 pounds.
Across the landscape of elite college football, a new breed of fast, big-framed wide receiver has emerged to threaten defenses over the top and in the red zone.
As the Tigers look to open up the offense under Matt Canada, first-year wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph aims to develop his corps of young wide outs to use their combination of speed and height to create coverage mismatches.
“Mickey Joseph is a high-energy guy,”said LSU coach Ed Orgeron said during his spring preview press conference. “He fits in with us. He’s a great man from Louisiana. He loves being a LSU Tiger. Our receivers love being around him. He’s a fundamentalist. …
“We are going to give them all opportunities. There is no certain pecking order. All of the guys are good athletes. We will see.”
During former LSU coach Les Miles’ tenure, wide receivers played a piecemeal role in the offense, depending on the quality of quarterback play.
In 2013, former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. made program history by becoming the first quarterback and wide receiver duo to post a 3,000-yard passing season and two 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the same year.
The Tigers produced only 41 percent of their touchdowns through the air during Miles’ 10 full seasons in Baton Rouge.
In 2016 at Pittsburg, Canada’s offense notched 21 of its 40 touchdowns through the air.
The Tigers’ dynamic group of wide receivers, headed by senior D.J. Chark, provide Canada with an arsenal of weapons to implement new schemes.
“We need some of the young players to develop, and I know that Mickey Joseph is going to do a great job of that,” Orgeron said.
Chark established himself as then-junior quarterback Danny Etling’s go-to target last season, accounting for 96 percent of his career catches after Etling took over as the starter against Mississippi State.
Although Russell Gage is listed as a senior wideout, Gage spent his first two seasons training as a defensive back, making Chark the Tigers’ only four-year wide receiver.
Despite the pressure many outside the program are placing on his shoulders, Chark isn’t concerned as he entered spring as the most experienced receiver.
“It tends to be weight on your shoulders,” Chark told Saturday Down South during player interviews. “But with the guys in the room, they are always working to help me out, and I’m working to help them out. Once we’re out there, you’re not thinking about anything else besides playing football. … You don’t really think about any pressure or anything.”
Behind Chark lies a talented group competing for the Tigers’ No. 2 and No. 3 wide receiver spots, including sophomore Dee Anderson, sophomore Drake Davis, sophomore Stephen Sullivan and Gage.
“The two obvious choices are Drake Davis and Dee Anderson,” former LSU wide receiver Sheddrick Wilson told Saturday Down South. “(They are) two extremely talented young men. Both are tall, lanky, fast and strong. … I just hope that they can mature both on and off the field, both being sophomores, to be able to help their team.”
Davis has impressed his teammates and coaches early this spring with his work ethic and effort. Last season, Davis notched just one catch for 19 yards last season.
The 6-3, 217-pound sophomore’s ability to create a vertical threat can force opponents to focus on the defending the deep ball instead of dropping their safeties into the box for run support.
“Drake has been good,” Etling said. “He’s worked hard. He’s trying to learn everything and become that guy that we need him to be. He’s on the right track. He’s going to continue to grow.”
Anderson gives the Tigers another physical presence to stretch the field with his 6-5 frame.
The Desoto, Texas, product recorded 4 catches for 73 yards in 11 games, including two starts, during his freshman campaign.
Despite being the most talkative Tigers receiver, according junior defensive back Kevin Toliver II, Anderson has his defensive teammates on notice with his play so far this spring.
“Dee Anderson is going to have a break out year as a sophomore,” junior defensive back Donte Jackson said.
At 6-6, Sullivan “towers” over defensive backs and other wide receivers alike in the words of Chark.
Sullivan’s tight end height gives Etling a big target for jump balls in the red zone, providing Canada with another option and lessening the load on junior running back Derrius Guice.
“Any time you get into the red zone, there’s an opportunity at a jump ball,” Wilson told Saturday Down South. “Where you just get him into the end zone, and then just let him go be an athlete and high point the ball to come down with a touchdown. Just go and grab a rebound is basically what it is. I think not only at LSU, but football itself is evolving into a game where the wideouts are going to be bigger, faster and stronger. Defensive backs will have to catch up with that.”
While Anderson, Davis and Sullivan provide the size and speed combo to challenge elite defenders deep and in the close quarters of the red zone, Gage and company provide Canada the versatility to make plays in space.
Although Gage doesn’t share the same lanky frame and physical gifts of the Tigers’ younger wide outs Wilson told Saturday Down South, the Baton Rouge native’s experience playing defensive back gives him an advantage in dissecting coverage.
After transitioning to wide receiver last spring, Gage tallied 5 catches for 62 yards and hauled in a touchdown in 2016.
“(Gage is) a great playmaker,” Jackson said. “If he gets the ball in space, he can be an effective guy for us.”
After the departure of LSU former wide receiver Travin Dural, the Tigers former jet sweep extraordinaire, sophomore Derrick Dillon has the opportunity to carve out a role for himself in the jet sweep game and the inside slot position during the spring, Wilson told Saturday Down South.
While LSU’s potential out wide is eye catching, development during the spring will be crucial as the Tigers wide receivers prepare to compete against the elite defenses throughout the SEC.
“It’s going to be growing, and it’s going to be a lot of mistakes here and there,” Etling said. “They’re just so talented that we’re going to continue to keep improving. If we can get those guys to just focus on the little details, then we are going to keep getting better.”