At the sound of coach Les Miles’ whistle, Rickey Jefferson shot out of his stance.
His helmet slammed into D.J. Chark’s left shoulder pad with a force that might normally knock back a slim receiver like Chark against a muscle-bound safety like Jefferson.
Chark stood his ground. Sure, Jefferson pushed Chark’s upper body back enough to claim victory in this collision drill, but the LSU wide receiver did enough to incite a wild reaction from his position coach.
Dameyune Craig crouched, wrapped his arms around Chark’s thighs and lifted him into the air. Craig, the Tigers’ new receivers coach, carried the 6-foot-3 talent a few feet before setting him down as if he were relocating a potted plant.
“LSU is known to be a physical football team and, when I think about LSU football, I think about a physical football team,” Craig said a few weeks ago. “That can be done at the receiver position, and that’s been my main focus going into the spring.”
A month into LSU’s five-week spring practice, a familiar name is surfacing regularly from coaches and players: D.J. Chark. He’s mastering this spring practice thing.
You remember last year, right? Miles suggested then that Chark was challenging Malachi Dupre for a starting spot. About nine months later, Chark finished the 2015 season with zero catches.
He’s back at it again this spring, especially with Travin Dural out while nursing a hamstring injury.
The rising junior from Alexandria flashed the physicality that Craig craves during that Big Cat drill earlier this week, but the superlatives don’t stop there. Quarterback Brandon Harris used the word “great” three times to describe Chark in a matter of minutes earlier this spring.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron compares Chark’s progression to that of his quarterback.
“Very similar to Brandon. Talented, inconsistent early on but now he doesn’t necessarily flash anymore. It’s consistently high-level play,” Cameron said. “He doesn’t have the ups and downs he used to have. He’s just maturing and growing. He’s got great speed and explosion.”
The nation saw that Dec. 29 in LSU’s win over Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl, when Chark scored on a 79-yard end-around.
Before that, Chark had never touched the football in an LSU game. Where was he before the bowl game? Behind Dupre, Dural and John Diarse in LSU’s receiver rotation.
Dural is the normal slot man on that end-around play, but he missed the bowl game while recovering from hamstring surgery.
“Have to wait your turn,” Chark said last week. “We had a lot of fast players. Even though I did good in the spring (last year), I was still working on the small things — confidence, consistency. When somebody goes down, you’ve got to do what you do. When Travin went down, that’s when I had to step up to show what I can do. I was just doing what I was doing in practice.”
Unfortunately for Chark, he’s expected to be LSU’s No. 3 receiver this fall — a not-so-productive position recently.
The Tigers’ third receiver the past three years — John Diarse twice and Dural — has averaged 185 receiving yards and 11 catches per season. That’s less than one catch and about 15 yards per game.
This season, Dupre is entering a junior year full of expectations, and Dural hung around for a senior season that could result in a high draft pick next spring.
And then there’s Chark, still reception-less.
“You’re going to play the best guys,” Chark said. “You just have to show that you’re one of the best guys and continue to work.”
Is he? For now.
Chark is practicing as the No. 2 receiver during the spring, judging by brief snippets of practice reporters are allowed to watch. Dupre, Chark and Jazz Ferguson, playing in the slot, have been the Tigers’ three options in three-receiver sets.
Cameron described the receiver group as “on fire right now” during an interview last week.
“We’re catching the ball the best that we’ve caught it since Jarvis (Landry) and Odell (Beckham Jr.) left,” Cameron said. “Dameyune’s brought a mental approach, technical approach those guys enjoy, and he’s catching some of those guys at the right time.”
What approach is that? Craig is a former Southeastern Conference quarterback coaching receivers. Chark explained.
“Having (Craig) talk to us from a quarterback’s standpoint, we kind of know what Brandon and Danny (Etling) are thinking,” he said. “It’s very helpful. If we’re running a route, he’s telling us what the quarterback is looking at, where he’s trying to put the ball.”
LSU’s starting quarterbacks over the past two years, Anthony Jennings and Harris, have completed just 48 and 53 percent of their passes, and it hasn’t all been their fault.
There are communication issues — not only between quarterback and receiver. For instance, Cameron moved from the press box to the sideline for the Texas Bowl, and he’s expected to call plays from the sideline this season.
Receivers drop passes, and they run the wrong routes, too — something that can be difficult to notice.
During LSU’s high school coaches clinic, Cameron plastered a play from LSU’s season-opening win over Mississippi State on a projection screen. It’s a 15-plus-yard completion from Harris to Dupre. Dupre leaps into the air to make a catch on a ball that’s thrown 4 feet over his head.
High pass? No, Cameron told the coaches: Wrong route. Dupre, because of Mississippi State’s secondary formation, should have run a softer post route across the field.
Craig is here to fix such things, replacing Tony Ball, a guy who LSU said left to “pursue other opportunities.” Ball hasn’t found a new job yet.
Meanwhile, Chark and other wideouts are digesting offensive changes to LSU’s passing game. Miles has preached offensive change since December, and there are signs that the Tigers are tinkering, at least.
LSU broke down tape of some of the nation’s most successful passing attacks during the offseason, Miles said, adding some to their system.
They’ve spent more time with quarterbacks on pocket passing and less on QB runs, Cameron said last week. There’s extra emphasis on the passing game during meetings and walkthroughs. There’s less teaching in front of video and more teaching on the field, he said.
Also, Craig arrived with some new passing drills that he has instituted, and Etling said the Tigers are tinkering with some new offensive plans. During a brief interview last week, Chark was asked about the offensive changes, and he immediately mentioned the connection the receivers and Harris have built over two-plus years together.
“We know what Brandon is thinking,” Chark said.
That’s not to leave off Etling, a transfer from Purdue challenging for the starting gig. Harris and Etling have different throwing motions, and their passes are far from similar.
Harris slings a tight spiral, an effortless motion that produces a fastball. Etling’s throws don’t necessarily have the same zip.
“We know how Danny plays and know how Brandon plays,” Chark said. “You’re not really thinking about how the ball is thrown. They’re just playing. You get used to it.”
At practice Thursday, Chark displayed his physicality again during the Big Cat drill, clearly the victor in this battle. He shoved safety Xavier Lewis out of the center ring and into the encircling group of players.
Excited again, Craig slapped his receiver across the chest with his arm, hooting and hollering.
This is what he likes to see.
“This spring,” he said, “we want to bring a physical mentality to the football game to that position.”
The production from LSU’s No. 3 receiver under coach Les Miles has dropped dramatically over the last five seasons.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.