Ask any LSU receiver about how things have changed the last few seasons and the answer is almost always exactly the same.
There’s a common theme at the core of each player’s evaluation: The gospel according to Billy.
Ever since Billy Gonzales arrived at LSU late in 2009 and especially after he took over as the tutor of a young and promising receiver corps, the longtime assistant under former Florida coach Urban Meyer has made an impact.
From adding some polish to the only veteran receiver he’s had since he got to LSU, Terrance Toliver, to molding Rueben Randle into the heir apparent as the Tigers’ home-run threat to buffing the rough edges as Russell Shepard transitioned from quarterback to receiver, Gonzales’ influence last season was meaningful.
Now, with a 10-man crew of receivers that features a pair of sophomores, three redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen, Gonzales’ message has become more important than ever as he starts to build a unit for this season and the future.
“We lost Terrence, which is a big loss for us, but at the same time we’ve got two players in Russell and Rueben who were with me last year and will be our leaders,” Gonzales said. “And then there are James Wright and Kadron Boone, who both got some experience last season and have really worked hard. So even though we’re a lot younger, we’re much more mature than the group we went into last year with.
“We have to develop three or four other guys to come along and help us out, but I think we have a lot of potential and I’m very excited about this group of receivers and seeing what each one of them can do when we put the ball in their hands.”
Before anybody gets the ball, particularly the young players who yet to make a splash, they have to go through the process of proving to Gonzales that they warrant the chance.
There’s no shortage of potential star power in the newest wave of receivers. Freshmen Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. arrived at LSU regarded as two of the best pass-catchers in the country and both are expected to get on the field quickly.
The third member of the freshmen trio is Paul Turner from West Monroe, like Shepard a converted quarterback.
Beckham has shone in pre-season camp and appears to be nipping at Boone’s and Wright’s heels for the No. 3 receiver spot. He has also displayed improved blocking skills.
Landry is out of action as he recuperates from a stress fracture in his foot, but he has stayed involved in practice – often standing near Gonzales to absorb whatever coaching he can.
Turner has quickly transformed from a potential project into one of the pleasant surprises of pre-season camp on offense and is poised to make an impact as both a receiver and in the return games.
All three were quick to credit Gonzales for their rapid development.
“Coach Gonzales preaches every day that have to do the little things well when we run routes, with how we catch the ball and how we need to block effectively,” Turner said. “He’s already helped make this transition a lot easier for me.”
Transition is something Gonzales is familiar with.
After nine seasons working for Meyer, Gonzales made the move to Baton Rouge after a less-than-perfect exit from Gainesville.
What once was affection between the two men with a strong common connection to former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce – Gonzales was Bruce’s first recruit when he took over at Colorado State and Meyer was his position coach – cooled considerably during the transition from Florida to LSU.
The most popular story for Gonzales’ departure is tied to his displeasure over being passed over for the Florida offensive coordinator job when Dan Mullen left to take the head-coach position at Mississippi State. Unmentioned by many is the fact that LSU nearly doubled Gonzales’ salary to $285,000 a year.
Internet innuendo spawned unfounded rumors that Gonzales submitted his resignation to Meyer on a Post-It note. Tigers coach Les Miles disarmed that notion last season and said the Post-It note was actually a handwritten letter.
Still there has been an impossible-to-mask disconnect between two guys who shared a big-brother-kid brother relationship for so long.
Immediately after the move, Meyer was diplomatic in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, saying
I think sometimes guys, when you’ve been with them so long, people encourage them to go move on. I wish it wasn’t at a rival. He’s a good coach. Every year he’s had job opportunities.”
Seven months later at SEC Media Days in 2010, Meyer was curt with an answer when asked about Gonzales.
Gonzales hasn’t said much about the separation from Meyer, but does concede that adjusting to LSU took some time.
“When you go to a new program, you have to get acclimated to how everything operates,” Gonzales said. “You have to go through a year and see where you fit in with that program and make sure you’re doing the right things. Now that I’ve been here a year, I’m very comfortable with Coach Miles and how his system operates. One thing we have in common, that all the coaches here share, is that we expect big things here. Our goal as a coaching staff is always going to be to win a championship.”
There was a familiar face when Gonzales came to Baton Rouge, and that same man is now who Gonzales answers to in offensive staff meetings.
Offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa and Gonzales were assistants on Meyer’s Bowling Green staff in 2001-02 and a strong bond formed that has never wavered. Though Studrawa stayed behind when Meyer and Gonzales departed for Utah, there was a connection that endured.
When Miles went hunting for a new receivers coach after D.J. McCarthy was forced out in 2009, Studrawa was quick to recommend Gonzales.
Now the two old friends are working in tandem to orchestrate the Tigers’ offense, along with quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe, running backs coach Frank Wilson and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger.
“There’s a comfort level we have with each other,” Gonzales said. “I’ve been with him and seen him in the trenches and I’m excited to see what he can do now with this chance as a coordinator at this level.
“Stud’s style of football is really Coach Miles’ style of football – a tough hard-nosed football team that takes shots down the field, finds ways to gets playmakers open and then focuses on getting the ball in their hands.”
That’s also a style Gonzales has bought into after spending so long as a disciple in the spread option scheme engineered by Meyer.
How much that style evolves under Studrawa is directly correlated to Gonzales’ work with receivers – with how much trust the coordinator and Miles develop in the players in position to be targets for quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
With a little over a year and a half of time working under Miles, Gonzales said their relationship has grown stronger, in large part because of how they look at getting inexperienced but talented players on the field – which is especially vital to Gonzales with such a young set of pupils.
“The main thing I want to make sure I’m doing is making sure our players are 100 per cent prepared and can play up to their full speed,” Gonzales said.
“Coach Miles has always talked about we’re going to play the best 11 on offense and the best 11 on defense – get them ready to go and we’ll send them out on the field. Whenever you have a coach who is willing to let you play young guys, that helps you out on the field but it also helps you out in recruiting, too. That’s a big reason we’ve recruited so well here and have a chance to be a really special football team every year.”
Gonzales is one of those reasons, too.
Besides his on-field duties, Gonzales has been a top-flight recruiter with his focus on the entire state of Florida after serving as Meyer’s recruiting coordinator for several years.
Two of the receivers are Floridians – Boone and Jakhari Gore – and Gonzales was instrumental in the Tigers landing quarterback Jerrard Randall.
Now, though, Gonzales is focused on training his receivers for a promising season, and the gospel is being heard.
“The influence Coach Gonzales has had on all of us has really been big,” Shepard said. “He’s made me a better player and the other guys in our room would say the same thing.”