About 12 months later, Brandon LaFell is a bright spot on an inconsistent Tiger offense. Throughout a disappointing 7-5 campaign, LaFell served as a 6’3 safety net for new quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson.
The Houston native said the transition from scapegoat to scoring threat is just part of the process.
“I never lost my confidence or really listened to all of the things people were saying about me dropping passes,” said LaFell, who was second on the team with 50 catches for 656 yards and four touchdowns in 2007. “I just went out and took my lumps and did everything I could to get better and to help my team win.”
His junior season has taken a different route as LaFell has almost doubled second-leading receiver Demetrius Byrd in receptions (61 to 34) and yards (903 to 503), and has doubled the touchdown total of both Byrd and junior tight end Richard Dickson. In fact, of LSU’s 12 team touchdown receptions, eight belong to LaFell, whom teammates refer to as “JoJo.”
“I felt like I had a good season but I could have done a little more to help the young quarterbacks,” he said.
LaFell’s success has not gone unnoticed by the NFL, as LSU fans are no doubt acutely aware. As a junior LaFell is eligible to declare for the 2009 NFL Draft if he desires. Since the close of the regular season LaFell has submitted the evaluation paperwork customary of all high-profile players. The initial feedback is that he could be drafted as early as the first or second round.
LaFell has done his best to ease the anxiety of the Tiger Nation, however. In several instances he has insisted he will wear purple and gold for one more year.
“I just want to know where I’m standing in relation to other guys,” LaFell said. “Ninety-nine percent of me is coming back next year. Winning a national championship was the best feeling of my life and before I leave I want to do it again.”
Whether he stays or goes, LaFell seems certain to continue LSU’s recent trend of sending wide receivers to the league. If he can manage 97 yards against Georgia Tech next week he will become the third LSU wide receiver this decade to reach 1,000 yards in a season. The other two, Michael Clayton and Josh Reed, were drafted in the first and second round, respectively.
Even if he can’t reach the milestone he need not fret. This season LaFell became the seventh different LSU receiver to gain 700 yards or more in a season. The other six, Early Doucet, Craig ‘Buster’ Davis, Dwayne Bowe, Devery Henderson, Clayton, and Reed, were all drafted no later than the third round. Good company to say the least.
But these statistics don’t factor the allure of championships. Even with SEC and national championship rings, LaFell said the desire for more trophies is enough to keep him in school.
“I’ve done everything I want to do in college football by winning a national championship but I want to do it again,” he said. “I want to go out there and put up more touchdowns and more yards, and catch more passes, and win another national championship with my team … I don’t know about everybody else but I hate walking off that field and losing a game. I know those teams that beat us felt the same way we did when we beat them…I just want to return the favor next year.”
Statements like this are a blatant reminder that fans aren’t the only ones with a bad taste in their mouths following a disappointing 7-5 title defense. It’s not a surprise to hear Tiger fans lament the quarterback play of 2008 as a factor in the poor performances. It does, however, come as a bit of a shock to hear LaFell find plenty of blame for everyone, including a receiving corps with two potential 2009 draft picks.
“You can say [the quarterback play affected the receivers] but at the same time we knew how young our quarterbacks were before going into the season,” he said. “So I put it mostly on us because knowing that we have young quarterbacks, the receivers, running backs and offensive linemen had to step their game up to another level and make it just as easy for them to go out there and play for us.”
Wide receivers like Terrance Toliver, Chris Mitchell, DeAngelo Peterson, Chris Tolliver, Tim Molton and perhaps Rueben Randle or Andre DeBose wait in the wings to shine when LaFell’s days at LSU are over.
But if LSU is to return to its dominant ways in 2009, LaFell could prove to be the type of leader that is invaluable to a team’s progress. Regardless of who wins the job, the Tigers’ quarterback in ’09 will still be young. The offensive line loses veterans like Herman Johnson and Brett Helms, and perhaps even Ciron Black.
Few players on LSU’s roster have struggled like LaFell – few if any have made such a dynamic switch to a leadership position.
“It took until probably this spring [to become a leader],” LaFell said. “Because last year when Early went down he was still in there leading us at practice and coaching us up. Early was still pretty much our leader, but most of the guys looked up to me because they hadn’t been around Early as much. Then when the spring hit there wasn’t anymore Early and it was just me and Byrd. I had been here three going on four years and Byrd had only been here half a year so they looked up to me more than they looked up to Byrd because he hadn’t been here long enough to earn their trust.”
So trust is still the key word for Brandon LaFell – but not like last season. A week from today we can all trust the LSU quarterbacks will be looking for their favorite target early and often. If he should decide to go pro, trust that he won’t be waiting very long. And if he should decide to stick around and lead the Tigers’ offense into 2009 … well, in Brandon we trust.