NASHVILLE, Tenn . — From the open-air honky-tonks that spill music out into the night along Broadway to even eateries along the concourses at the airport, this is a town that lives up to its Music City nickname.
People come from all over the map hoping to break into the big time, to be discovered.
LSU wide receiver John Diarse is no different, though perhaps “rediscovered” would be a more accurate word.
Flip the calendar back to the Tigers’ Aug. 30 season opener against Wisconsin.
LSU was trying to light the fire of a comeback against the Badgers, down 24-13 after three quarters, when Diarse broke out a flamethrower. He caught a pass from Anthony Jennings in the right flat, shook a would-be tackler and was gone on a 36-yard touchdown reception that was the signature moment of the Tigers’ 28-24 victory.
But after that, crickets. Passes have been doled out eye-dropper fashion most of the season for all of LSU’s receivers, but Diarse had just eight catches in LSU’s next 10 games as true freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn became bigger and bigger factors in the Tigers’ modest air attack.
Then came LSU’s regular-season finale Thanksgiving night at Texas A&M. Diarse had three catches for 29 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown reception just before halftime.
LSU’s coaching staff took note of his production, juxtaposed against Quinn’s dropped passes vs. Alabama (one catch in the last three games) and Diarse’s similar decline (three catches in the last three games for 71 yards and a touchdown).
Now in Tuesday’s Music City Bowl against Notre Dame, Diarse is penciled into the starting lineup opposite sophomore Travin Dural.
Having experienced what it’s like to be the missing man in LSU’s passing offense, it’s an opportunity Diarse is determined not to let slip from his grasp.
“It’s not how you start, but how you finish,” he said. “I’m excited to see how it goes.”
You and a few hundred thousand devoted LSU followers, John.
To say the Tigers’ passing game has not warranted a passing grade this season would be a lie. LSU ranks 114th among Football Bowl Subdivision schools at 163.9 passing yards per game. By comparison, Notre Dame ranks 16th nationally with a robust 293.8 aerial yards per contest.
Certainly there is hope that Diarse can help change that figure for the better. An act of Congress isn’t going to convert LSU from a run-oriented football team to one that travels predominantly by air, but there can be more and better balance. There has to be.
Diarse could have been that answer last season, or certainly a more established player going into 2014. He was getting high marks as a true freshman out of Monroe’s Neville High until a hand injury slowed his preseason progress — he enrolled in January and earned the most improved newcomer award in spring practice — to a halt.
He spent the 2013 season as a spectator, devouring the lessons he got from practicing with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.
“I’m very thankful for that redshirt year,” Diarse said. “It taught me a lot. Being behind Jarvis and Odell, I don’t have enough time to tell you how much I learned from them.”
But Landry and OBJ are long gone from LSU, of course, having written their names large in the NFL this season.
Now in an NFL stadium, the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field, it’s Diarse’s time to be a star. It’s his version of the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Jennings, who has had a star-crossed season but certainly hasn’t forgotten Diarse’s big catch-and-run against Wisconsin, believes he will.
“He’s definitely progressed since that first game,” Jennings said. “He’s always kept his head on straight, always been a hard worker in practice. I think he’s going to play a big role in this game.”
“He’s grown a lot from the beginning of the season to now,” said Dural, LSU’s leader with 37 receptions. “When someone comes in for the first time, you don’t know what to expect, but as the season’s gone on, he’s gotten more mature and has become a big part of the team.”
A year ago, Diarse made LSU’s trip to Tampa, Florida, for the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against Iowa. Most of his time was devoted to eating and enjoying the town.
This time, he’s staying away from the pizza and the wings. He’s a starter, and he feels a responsibility to be at his best.
“This is more of a business trip,” he said. “I see it as a chance to get better and a chance to show what I can do.”
A chance at catching his big break.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.