BATON ROUGE, La. — Nothing in football is ever as easy as it looks.
Take playing wide receiver. From a fan’s perspective, receiver looks like the easiest position on the field. You run to a spot, you catch a pass, you keep running. You don’t have to hit people, you rarely get hit yourself and you always know where you’re supposed to go.
The toughest part is securing a catch, which is something you’re supposed to practice 10 hours a week. It shouldn’t be that hard, right?
If that’s the way you think, LSU wide receiver DJ Chark has some news for you, because the degree of difficulty in catching a deep ball is way higher than anyone thinks.
Connecting on deep passes was the difference between in winning and losing in LSU’s loss to Alabama, and also in the Tigers’ win over Arkansas. Chark was electric against Arkansas, catching 4 passes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Against Alabama? He and quarterback Danny Etling misfired on four deep throws, leading to multiple drives stalling out.
Which leads to the big question: What’s the difference between a made catch and a missed one 45 yards down the field? As it turns out, a lot.
“It’s more difficult than we make it seem when we complete it,” Chark said. “You complete it and it looks easy, and if you don’t complete it, it still looks easy and anyone can make it. From my standpoint, I have to get off the press, set my route, get separation, make the pass easier for Danny and catch it. Danny has to go back, read the coverage, look off the safety and deliver the ball. Offensive line has to protect long enough. There’s a lot of things that go into that one play.”
Let’s take a look at this in practice. The first of Chark’s two touchdowns against Arkansas came on a 45-yard bomb on second-and-8. LSU lined up in the shotgun with three receivers split wide to the left and running back Derrius Guice flanked to Etling’s right. Concerned by Guice’s ability, Arkansas rolled its safety into the box, locking all three of LSU’s receivers in man coverage.
Chark was matched up with Arkansas cornerback and Louisiana native Henre Toliver. Toliver gave him about 4 yards of cushion off the line of scrimmage and upon the snap immediately retreated into his backpedal. Chark didn’t have to contend with a press, so he broke into his route.
For 10 yards, Chark streaked straight ahead. When he reached the 35-yard line, he cut inside, flipping Toliver’s hips. 5 yards later, Chark bolted back outside toward the pylon. The move created about 3 yards of separation between Chark and Toliver, more than enough for Etling to drop a throw into his receiver’s arms. Touchdown.
Everything about the play worked flawlessly, which is why there was only one thing going through Chark’s mind as the ball was in the air.
“Don’t drop it. That’s the biggest thing. You get the million-dollar route and the two-dollar catch. You don’t want that. That’s the biggest thing.”
After that play, LSU started to play cat-and-mouse with the Arkansas defense. Toliver and Co. gradually began backing further and further off coverage from Chark to prevent him from blowing past them. So LSU threw hitches and shorter passes for easy conversions — and then ran past the Razorbacks anyway. Chark’s second touchdown, a 68-yarder, came against coverage where the defensive back was backed off Chark by 9 yards.
Recognizing all these factors in the moment is tough. But when Chark and Etling pull it off, it’s a thing of beauty. Of course, doing it well against Arkansas doesn’t mean the Tigers will make it work again versus Tennessee and Texas A&M, because each game and each game plan is different.
But the fact remains the same: Catching long passes is hard.
And don’t even get Chark started on fielding punts. That’s a different animal of difficulty.