DJ Chark has always had a lot of appreciation for punt returners.
Now that he is one, LSU’s senior wide receiver realizes why even more.
With head-hunting defenders bearing down on him while the ball soars through the air or bounces around on the turf, a punt returner has a split second to make a decision that can affect the entire team.
Do you take a chance and field it, or call for a fair catch when it goes over your head and risk having the ball downed in the shadows of the goal post?
“I always applaud guys that do it,” Chark said Monday. “Last year, I used to watch Tre’Davious White do it and people would complain, ‘Why didn’t you catch it?’ or, ‘Why did you do this?’ It’s harder than it looks.”
Chark has certainly learned that this season.
After being named the main punt returner before the season opener, Chark has had his moments with a 32-yard return against BYU and a dazzling 65-yard touchdown the next week against Chattanooga.
He took another kick to the end zone against UTC, but it was wiped out by a penalty.
Eight months into his career at LSU, JaCoby Stevens has pulled off a tough act.
In Saturday's 35-26 win against Syracuse, Chark and the Tigers’ return game were neutralized by versatile punter Sterling Hofrichter.
After averaging 42.8 yards on five sky kicks in the first half, Hofrichter went rugby-style after halftime and netted a whopping 56.5 yards on two punts. Both landed near the sideline and rolled dead at the LSU 9 and 1, respectively.
“He was able to get a lot of height on the ball (with the sky kicks), so I come in and I’m surrounded by orange jerseys,” Chark said. “The rugby punt is kind of tricky because you have to come up. As you’re coming up, you don’t know if you really want to jump on it because their guy is right there.
“If you make a mistake, instead of the ball being on the 1-yard line it’s their ball,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand the different consequences that come with the punt return game, but it’s something we have to work on.”
A review of the game tape shows that for the most part Chark did his job, which is to stand on the 10-yard line and call for a fair catch if the punt carries over his head.
Of the four punts he didn’t try to field, two came down at the LSU 7. The other two were short rugby kicks that bounced at the 26 and 23 — both near the Tigers’ sideline — and rolled forward to the 9 and 1, respectively.
“I looked at it and have to correct some things,” said Chark, who is averaging 19.8 yards on five returns. “It’s different from sitting in your room watching it on TV than being out there with D-I athletes coming full speed at you. You have to make a decision … you want to make the right decision.”
Christian LaCouture and the rest of LSU’s defensive linemen are used to it by now.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Monday that Chark will continue to return punts. But he and his staff studied the tapes and will now drop Chark back to the 8-yard line to hopefully prevent balls that hit inside the 10 from being deadened deep in their territory.
Orgeron said the team lost 57 yards, or "hidden yardage," on punt returns last week.
“We’re going to coach our returner a little bit different,” he said. “I’ve got to put that on us. We didn’t coach them well enough there.”
While he had a tough night returning punts, it all ended well for Chark.
After Syracuse scored 16 straight points to pull to within two points with 5:40 to play, the Tigers put together a drive that was capped by Chark’s 20-yard TD run on a jet sweep with just under two minutes left that secured the win.
“Early in the drive, I told coach (Orgeron) I wanted to go back in,” Chark said. “That last drive there, I felt like we had to end it. I told (quarterback) Danny (Etling) that I felt it was going to be open and he gave it to me.
“He trusted me enough to give it to me, and we were able to make a play on the outside and finish the game off.”