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LSU wide receiver D.J. Chark (7) leaves everyone behind while running a kickoff back for a touchdown which was called back for penalty during the first half of LSU's football home opener against Chattanooga Saturday Sept. 9, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La.. LSU won 45-10.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

The first time DJ Chark dropped back for a special teams return he had never practiced it before.

He was 8 or 9 years old at the time, the smallest player on the field and had just moved back to Alexandria with his family.

His youth football coach, Terrell Gorham, was concerned at the time that Chark didn’t know any of the offensive plays after having never practiced with the team that season. But Gorham also knew the special talent brewing inside the young athlete from when he was on the team a few years earlier.

From an early age, Chark’s greatest strength was his playmaking ability in space. It had to be, because, as Gorham noted, he couldn’t catch the ball.

But put the ball in his hands, and Chark was always ready for a show.

So he picked the easiest play he could think of: kickoff return.

The team parents didn’t like that Chark was returning kicks since he’d only been with the team a few days, Gorham said.

Then, they saw something Gorham remembers vividly to this day.

Chark returned the opening kick the length of the field for a touchdown — memorable enough, even though a penalty negated the score.

Gorham was surprised when, on the next play, the opposing team kicked it to Chark again. He was even more surprised when Chark took it to the house for a second time, only to be called back for another penalty.

“I said it’s not possible they kick it back to him. They’ll kick it to someone else,” Gorham recalls. “Well, they kick it to him again and he ran it back again.

“… A lot of the families were like, ‘How is it this kid can come out here and the coach just lets him play?’ After he ran those three touchdowns back, I didn’t have any more questions. Nobody asked me again about any decisions I made concerning him.”

Now a senior at LSU, Chark is the Tigers’ punt return specialist.

But the thing is, Chark never wanted the position.

LSU has Donte Jackson — the proclaimed fastest man in college football — who was expected to walk away with the punt return job without much fight going into the season.

Then, two days before LSU opened against BYU in New Orleans, Chark got word he’d be the one dropping back, not Jackson.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron said it was because Chark showed better ball security than Jackson, which has been a priority to start the season.

This time, it was Chark’s turn to doubt his abilities.

“Out of nowhere (the coaches) said, ‘You’re going to be the punt returner,’ ” Chark said following the season opener. “I was like, I don’t know if I really want to do punt return. College punters, they can really punt.”

Before this season, the last time Chark returned a live punt was in high school four years ago.

It was fun back then, having the ball in his hands with wide-open space to work his magic.

Former Alexandria Senior High coach Brad Chesshir said Chark recorded more than 1,500 return yards his senior season and was the best return man in the district.

But the Football Bowl Subdivision is a different story.

“We met and were talking back in July,” Chesshir said of he and Chark. “And I asked — because I knew the previous three years (LSU) never put him at returner — I asked if he was getting any looks this year as a returner, and he said, ‘I’m kind of a backup on kickoff returns, but I’m not doing punt return.’

“I asked why not, and he jokingly said, ‘There’s a lot of pressure on the punt returner, so I’m focusing on receiver.’”

Chesshir was a little surprised by Chark’s comment, knowing full well what he was capable of on returns.

What wasn’t surprising was what came next.

In his collegiate debut as a punt returner, Chark had a modest three returns for 26 yards.

Then came Chattanooga where Chark attempted to return two punts against the Mocs last Saturday.

The first was a 79-yard return to the end zone, but just like that first time as a youth player all those years ago, it was called back for penalty.

A few drives later, he got another chance, and history officially repeated itself.

For 65 yards Chark hugged the right side of the field, following his blockers and chasing down holes in the coverage on his way to his first return touchdown at LSU.

More than a decade after his first return, there’s no one left to doubt Chark’s ability.

“I asked coach if he thought they were going to kick it to me again (after the touchdown was called back),” Chark said. “He said ‘Yeah.’ Then I was talking to (Russell Gage), and I was like, ‘I’m probably going to return another one (for a touchdown) if they give it to me.’ I said I thought they would kick it away from me. (Gage) said, ‘No, I think they give you one more,’ and they did.”

Follow Mike Gegenheimer on Twitter, @Mike_Gegs.