BATON ROUGE, La. — Heading into the Tigers’ first spring game of the Coach “O” Era, the moral in the LSU wide receiver room could not be more different than it was a year ago.
Throughout 2016, the Tigers experienced a wide receiver exodus with five wide receivers, including four former 4-star recruits, transferring out of the program.
Fast forward to this spring, senior wide receiver D.J. Chark smiles as he sums up the different energy among the receivers.
“It completely did a 180,” Chark said. “You don’t really have time to complain about not playing because you are playing now.”
First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s focus on spreading the ball throughout the offense has ignited the Tigers’ wide receiving corps this spring.
“Everybody is competing every day knowing that they’ve got their opportunity now,” sophomore wide receiver Derrick Dillon said.
Throughout former LSU coach Les Miles’ tenure, the Tigers relied heavily on their top wideouts, leaving many receivers without the opportunity to prove themselves.
In Miles’ final season in Baton Rouge, LSU’s top two receivers accounted for 72.4 percent of the wide receivers’ receptions and 56.9 percent of the Tigers’ offensive production through the air.
But starting with Orgeron’s then-interim appointment as the Tigers’ head coach five games into the season, LSU began to open up the offense and former LSU wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig focused on giving more receivers playing time.
“Coach Craig made sure that a lot of guys who were inexperienced played because he knew that Malachi (Dupre), Travin (Dural) and possibly me were going to leave,” Chark said. “He wanted to make sure other guys had experience for this year. Now with this offense, it helps because those guys, who have seen playing time just on blocking, know what it’s going to be like in Tiger Stadium. … Now, it really just helps them out because they know the speed of the game. ”
During his one season at Pittsburg in 2016, Canada spread the load throughout his entire offense with seven players recording at least 12 catches.
LSU had just four players reach 12 catches last year, including running back Leonard Fournette. Five Tigers did so in 2015 and 2014.
Although Chark entered the spring as the Tigers’ most experienced wideout, Canada’s approach translated into a multitude of opportunities for the Tigers’ lesser known outside threats, especially Dillon.
“A lot of these guys haven’t had that much experience, so it’s good that we can all learn this offense together,” Chark said. “Everyone is making plays. Everyone is getting their opportunities, and they’re making the most of it.
“They’re being positive. … Derrick Dillon has stepped up. … Those guys are learning this offense and embracing it as (their own). When they finally are able to get a shot, they will be in an offense that they are comfortable in.”
After accounting for 4,938 yards of total offense and 56 touchdowns in his final two seasons in high school while playing mostly quarterback, Dillon redshirted his freshman season in 2015 and didn’t record a catch in 2016 as he continued to learn the ins-and-outs of the receiver position.
Despite his lack of playing time, Dillon said he never considered transferring because older players advised him to be patient.
The Franklinton, La., native’s patience has payed off this spring in Canada’s offense, where his athleticism and now finely-honed route running skills can be used in a variety of ways, from the slot to the jet sweep game along with Chark and senior wide receiver Russell Gage.
“It’s a really good opportunity to show what I can do, ” Dillon said. “This is something like my high school offense. My role is whatever play you put me in. Just to make plays.”
While the turnaround might be most notable in the wide receiver room, Canada’s offense has created an infectious energy throughout the offense as players work to earn a spot for their talents in a multi-faceted attack.
“We want to get as many guys that are playmakers the ball in as many ways as possible,” senior quarterback Danny Etling said. “We’re going to continue to grow. Once the spring is done, we will take a look at the film and see who does what well and what we do well as an offense.”