LSU’s LaFell now a veteran leader

Published 12:36 am Tuesday, August 25, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Now that he’s the grizzled veteran, Brandon LaFell has a word of advice for LSU’s up-and-coming group of wide receiver prospects like highly-touted true freshman Rueben Randle.

‘‘I tell him not to make the mistakes I made when I was young,’’ said LaFell, who has led LSU in receiving yards the last couple of seasons but has shared the spotlight with other productive wideouts. ‘‘Talking back to coach, doing stuff like that, being late for meetings. When I was redshirting, I was lackadaisical about things.

‘‘I just want to make sure he’s focused, knows his plays, knows his role, knows his checks, stuff like that. He’s going to play this season. I just want to make sure the guy is ready.’’

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In other words, LaFell has embraced a leadership role for the receiving corps, ready or not. His 2008 production his 63 receptions for 929 yards and eight touchdowns last season more than doubles the combined statistics of the rest of the returning receivers demands it.

‘‘Now that he’s a senior and a veteran player, he’s a big receiver that knows what he’s doing,’’ offensive coordinator Gary Crowton said. ‘‘He’s a very intelligent player that had a lot of good catches last year.’’

Said head coach Les Miles, ‘‘He wants to make his last year his best year.’’ With good reason. rates LaFell as the top wide receiver prospect in the senior class, a projected first-round draft pick. At 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, he has the combination of size and speed that makes for a good prospect.

So far in his LSU career, the one-time recruiting afterthought has used his emerging talent to out-produce the players who were supposed to be the receiving leaders for the Tigers. This year, he’ll be tested on how he handles the rigors of being the guy who is supposed to be the man.

Two years ago, he was the unproven sophomore while Early Doucet was the go-to guy. When Doucet missed some games with injuries, LaFell stepped up and finished with a team-best 656 receiving yards (Doucet had more catches, 57 to LaFell’s 50, but for just 525 yards).

A season ago, LaFell had considerably more production than senior Demetrius Byrd, who caught 37 passes for 513 yards. But Byrd, whose NFL future was put on hold by an automobile accident just before the draft, was still the top guy, LaFell said.

‘‘Byrd was the No. 1 guy last year,’’ LaFell said matter-of-factly. ‘‘I always knew I was going to be the second read, but this year I know I’m going to be the first read, so I have to play with a little more confidence, a little more swagger and make sure I get open every play.’’

Those safety nets are gone, and instead, it’s LaFell who will try to coax breakout years from up-and-comers like Randle, the nations top-rated receiver prospect last season, and Terrance Toliver, who came to LSU as the nation’s top-rated prep receiver in 2007 and has 32 catches in two years. It’s not a completely foreign role for LaFell.

‘‘I always felt myself in a leadership role,’’ LaFell said. ‘‘Early went down in the (2007) season, and they threw me into a leadership role. And last year I always looked at myself as a leader, because Byrd was only here for two years (as a junior college transfer) and most of the guys who were here knew me better than they knew Byrd.

‘‘No need to shy away from being a leader now. I’ve been in that role, going two and a half years now.’’

It’s OK if you havent always noticed LaFell’s leadership role. LaFell was the rare under-the-radar prospect coming out of high school who plays a position LSU has always recruited well.

He was a modest three-star prospect according to coming out of Houston’s Lamar High. By contrast, Byrd was a top-rated junior college recruit out of Pearl River Community College. Doucet, Tolliver and, now, Randle were all top-rated national recruits at wide receiver coming out of high school.

Even with all that talent, it’s been LaFell who has led the Tigers in receiving for two straight years. That has made him a much better NFL draft prospect than he was a college prospect coming out of high school.

‘‘I could have gone somewhere else, anywhere in the conference, anywhere in the nation,’’ he said. ‘‘But when I was on my recruiting visit and I saw the competition level, I saw those guys in the weight room and on the field busting their tails, I said Those guys right there are going to make me better.’’

And they did. And now it’s LaFell’s turn to try to do the same for the Tigers’ talented, but unproven, young receiving prospects.