BATON ROUGE, La. -- Malachi Dupre didn’t expect his job to be so difficult when he first arrived at LSU.
Prior to becoming ESPN’s top wide receiver in the 2014 signing class, Dupre had competed against the Tigers’ starting cornerbacks, Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson, in LSU’s high school prospect camps.
“They were great players, but it was kind of easy,” Dupre recalled.
Fast forward to last summer and Dupre’s tune changed considerably.
White and Robinson, both a year older than Dupre, had played as LSU true freshmen. When Dupre showed up in Baton Rouge for his first preseason as a college player, he didn’t win many battles against the cornerback duo.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I remember going against them a year ago. It wasn’t hard,’ ” Dupre said. “Once they had that year of SEC play under their belt, going against them again, I remember I really couldn’t even get off the ball at first.”
Such is life for a freshman receiver in the SEC -- even one who was as highly-regarded as Dupre. Typically, it’s difficult for any true freshman to make the transition from high school to college, but that is especially the case for receivers.
Most of them have never dealt with physical corners who excel in press coverage, nor have they learned the precision with which their routes must be run. As Dupre said, playing the position in high school is simply a lot easier.
Take it from Trey Quinn, ESPN’s No. 3 wideout prospect for 2014, who faded down the stretch last season after starting seven of the first 10 games.
“There was a huge transition as far as stuff you can get away with in high school as far as technique and routes and especially being able to block big safeties and linebackers and occasionally a lineman dropping,” said Quinn, who ranked fourth on the team with 193 receiving yards. “It’s a big transition. The offseason weight room after my freshman year is a place where I really had an emphasis, just trying to get bigger and stronger.”
Same with John Diarse, who redshirted as a freshman, but caught 15 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns last fall in his first season of SEC competition.
“Even for me playing receiver my freshman year in high school, nobody really pressed me, so it was kind of like, ‘Hey, just run by them. Run by them and the ball will be over your right shoulder.’ Stuff like that,” Diarse said. “And then you get to college and a [cornerback] steps up and it’s like, ‘Coach, I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never seen this before.’
“So it’s different, challenging definitely, in your first year. But once you get it down pat, second year, you just roll from there.”
That’s the goal for LSU’s collection of sophomore wideouts who created a splash when they signed with the Tigers last February. Dupre, Quinn and ESPN 300 receiver D.J. Chark’s arrival was cause for optimism, but they all suffered from obvious growing pains once the season began.
Quinn lost his starting status after some drive-killing drops against Alabama. Dupre finished second on the team with 318 receiving yards and five touchdowns, but he was mostly a non-factor in the second half of the season, hauling in just three passes for 61 yards over the final six games. Chark failed to record a catch and appeared in just one game after midseason.
However, Chark has been the talk of spring practice, with multiple teammates making note of his growing confidence.
“I think that he always had the talent. It was never about talent,” quarterback Anthony Jennings said. “I think he’s coming into his own and continually getting better. I think his confidence is growing, and he’s learning the offense in and out. Knowing what you can do is going to make you faster on the field, makes you play better.”
Although he failed to make a mark on the stat sheet, Chark said those game reps last season were a factor in his rapid development this spring. LSU coach Les Miles has credited Chark with at least one touchdown catch after each of the Tigers’ three spring scrimmages.
“I felt the game speed,” Chark said. “I was able to just get the jitters out. You’re still going to have jitters when you go in Tiger Stadium, but I’ll be better prepared this year than I was last year.”
The Tigers are banking on it. It’s not uncommon for receivers to make considerable strides in Year 2, once they have had time to make the physical and technical adjustments necessary to excel at their position in college.
Diarse said LSU’s new receivers coach Tony Ball has been shuffling his players between the various wideout positions “and letting everybody get a taste of what the other person does so we can do that during the season” -- an experiment that is typically difficult to pull off with freshmen who are struggling to digest a college offense.
If Ball likes what he sees and does so this fall -- for the most part, only Travin Dural, Diarse and Quinn worked at multiple spots last year, Diarse said -- it should make LSU’s offense a bit more difficult to scheme against.
That’s the benefit of experience, even in a season that was an overall disappointment for LSU’s passing game. These guys are no longer freshmen, and they expect to perform differently this fall after enduring 2014’s growing pains in the public eye.
“It’s different because I know what to expect from an SEC team,” Dupre said. “I know what I have to do to prepare myself, to be healthy, to compete at the highest level and ultimately get better as a player and help my team get better. I’m a sophomore, but I look at myself as a leader now moving forward.”