Don't Blink: Inside LSU's Summer of 10,000 Catches

by Cody Worsham
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Don't Blink: Inside LSU's Summer of 10,000 Catches

Justin Jefferson stands behind a closed door in LSU’s indoor practice facility with his hands raised, a little skeptical and very concerned about what will happen when it opens.

One thought repeats in his head: Don’t blink

On the other side of the door stands his new passing game coordinator, Joe Brady, armed with a football and sporting a wry grin. It’s special teams period at practice, which means Brady is a little bored. 

And when Brady gets bored, he gets creative.

He’s an innovator, a trait that manifests itself as much when he’s designing passing concepts as when he’s designing drills. The only thing that sparks his imagination more than boredom is a problem. 

Today’s problem: dropped passes. The stats speak for themselves. In 2018, LSU finished 96th among FBS teams in catch percentage, reeling in just 84.3% of catchable targets, according to Pro Football Focus. In 13 games, the Tigers dropped 26 passes, LSU’s receivers accounting for 21 of those drops.

Today’s solution: closed doors. While the rest of the team works special teams, Brady’s receivers – those, like Jefferson, not involved on kickoff or punt units – are put to the test. Stand behind a closed door. When it opens, a ball thrown a split-second earlier by Brady will be in the air.

Drop the ball, and drop to the ground for 20 pushups. 

“The open door that was definitely new for me,” Jefferson says. “I was like, ‘Bro, you’re going to hit me with the ball there.’ But as time went on, and the more we did it, the more comfortable I felt with it.”

Comfort is the key word for Brady, who gave his receivers a goal this summer: catch 10,000 balls. Catch them behind a door. Catch them on the jugs machines. Catch them with nets over your head and goggles over your eyes and a camera on your head. 

Just catch them – wherever and however you can. Drops won’t do in 2019, because Brady believes his receivers hold in their hands the fate of the entire team.

“I told these guys every single day: ‘This team is going to go as the receivers go,'” he says. “‘There’s not a day we can take off. This receiver unit is going to make this team who we are.’ And then I want them to have that mentality.”

Here the inside story of how LSU’s receivers spent the summer hammering home that mentality, one catch at a time, from zero to 10,000. When you hold the fate of the team in your hands, drops aren’t allowed. 

AS A PLAYER, Brady struggled to balance work and play. He was a grinder who erred toward the former. It’s a characteristic that makes for a good coach, but it also can wear an athlete down.

“I think it’s important for a receiver to have fun playing football,” Brady says. “I played receiver, and too many times, I was very, ‘Have to do this, have to do this,’ and it’s very black and white, and I think the game of football is very gray.”

That’s where Brady’s unconventional drills, like the opening door, come into play. They address two concerns: How can we make receivers comfortable being uncomfortable, make practice harder than the game? Secondly, but perhaps most importantly, how can we make sure they’re enjoying the work?

“When we go out to practice, I think some of the drills we do are unconventional, but I think we want to bring that athletic ability out of our guys,” Brady says. “If you can make receivers become comfortable being uncomfortable, they’re going to be dynamic.”

Some drills, he borrows from NFL coaches like former Cowboys assistant Mike Pope and Saints assistant Dan Campbell, whom he worked with in New Orleans for the past two seasons.

“If you ever go to a Saints practice, Dan Campbell always doing drills,” he says. “Sometimes you look at it like, ‘What are they doing?'”

One could ask the same question while watching LSU practice this fall. One day, receivers are hiding behind goal posts, only their arms extending out from behind to grab a quickly thrown ball. The next day, they’re playing hot potato in a tiny circle, the ball tossed end over end or in a wobble rather than a tight spiral. 

Equipment managers carry around bags filled with nets that fit over players’ helmets and dark goggles that looks like a cross between a sleep mask and a Batman costume. These are Terrace Marshall’s favorite unconventional device while racking up his 10,000 catches this summer. 

“It just blocks the vision off from both sides so you have to focus on the ball,” Marshall says of the goggles. “Instead of the ball coming past your eyes so you won’t see it, you’ve got to keep it in front of you to catch it.”

Sometimes, Brady combines the drills – nets plus goggles, goggles plus hot potato. Other times, he improvises, making up new drills on the fly.

Jefferson, meanwhile, has grown to enjoy the door drill best. 

“It’s like having like a defensive back waving in front of your face,” he says. “Doing these different drills, drills we haven’t even done before, definitely helps.”

His skepticism is long gone. In its place is a respect for Brady, who practices what he preaches. His receivers are having fun.

“We laugh all day with each other,” Jefferson says. “Our whole room has that fun attitude. And him being 29 years old, we talk to him just like we talk to any one of our teammates. That’s one of the main things preaches on, is just going out there, having fun.”

“We’re going to pay attention to the things that we have to do, but at the same time, we’re not going to coach the athletes out of our football players,” Brady adds. “We’re going to allow them to have fun, and we’re going allow them to do what they do best.”

OF THE 10,000 balls each player ventured to grab this summer, perhaps none were as valuable – certainly, none were more analyzed – than a couple dozen collected late in the summer.

All it took was a $14,000 pair of glasses, 12 minutes of footage, 15 players, and nearly 130,000 data points. 

Data is like oxygen to Jack Marucci, LSU’s Director of Athletic training, who likes to tackle summer projects each offseason through what he calls the department’s Applied Sciences program. 

“There’s enough data out there,” he says, “if you want to take the time to look at it.”

He does, so he did. This year, he turned his sights on, among other aspects, LSU’s receivers. 

Like everyone else, Marucci saw the drops from last season, and it made him think of a topic near and dear to his heart: ocular dominance.

“I probably talk about ocular dominance every day,” he jokes.

Imagine, for a second, someone is standing 10 yards directly behind you, and they fire a football in your direction. You have to keep your feet planted, turn your shoulders, and catch the ball. Chances are, Marucci says, you’ll tend to turn your head a certain direction, finding more comfort over one shoulder or the other. 

In the spirit of simplicity and brevity, that’s ocular dominance. Just as athletes are right or left-handed, they tend to be right or left-eye dominant. (A simple test of eye dominance takes just a few seconds).

One of the things Marucci wanted to figure out was if ocular dominance affected the Tigers’ catch rates, and, if so, how LSU could use that information to highlight strengths and improve weaknesses – with an emphasis on the former. 

“The key with a player is finding what someone does well,” Marucci says. “When you have a strength, let’s capitalize on it. The weaknesses, we try to identify them and make them better. My philosophy is, if you focus on weaknesses, your strengths become weaknesses. Let’s use you for what you are. Let’s capitalize on his strengths.”

The process was two-fold. First, Marucci tracked every pass from the 2018 season and created a “receiver spray chart.” He tracked receiver head rotation, route flow direction, depth of throw, and whether or not the pass was contested. 

“It was painstaking,” he says, “but I was trying to confirm the data.”

He needed more data, though. So Marucci brought in a specialist in eye-tracking technology who outfitted the players with specialized, $14,000 glasses equipped with two cameras: one tracking what the players were seeing, and the other tracking their pupils. 

One summer day inside the LSU Indoor Practice Facility, 15 LSU pass catchers ran 48 seconds worth of routes shot on cameras recording at 180 frames per second, giving Marucci 129,600 data points to work with. 

With that data, they could determine the smallest of causes and effects. They could tell which receivers struggled to keep their eyes locked on the target moving from left to right, or which ones overshot the ball with their eyes moving right to left.  And as one player ran routes, another watched as the data poured in, seeing in real time who was most successful and how.

Marucci turned all that data in a “wide receiver matrix” and turned it over to the players and their coaches. Now, they run routes and line up personnel knowing which players thrive in which positions and flowing in which directions, or they drill to shore up their weak spots.

“We found definite patterns,” Marucci says. “Receivers have strengths. Some guys are better flowing certain ways. We have a matrix on these guys, so we feel like we can put them in better positions.”

The correlation is legitimate. Marucci says he cross-referenced the eye-tracking data with his drop charts from 2018 and found that 85 to 90 percent of the time, the receiver was going in his weaker direction, where his non-dominant eye did the bulk of the visual work. 

Sophomore receiver Ja’Marr Chase knew, intuitively, which routes and flows he was most comfortable with. But seeing the data laid out graphically has given him another tool at his disposal. Like a basketball player with a shooting chart, he knows his money spots, the places he needs to get to in crunch time, just as he knows which areas he can focus on improving in practice.

“I actually think about that, to be honest,” he says. “I know sometimes I catch it better on certain sides, or I have certain hands on top that I might not catch the ball as smooth as I do on the other hand. So I’ll come out before practice and try to catch just to get better at that.”

The players will benefit, and so will the coaches. They, too, have tangible data to back up their intuition. In practice, they can design drills to improve weaknesses. And in games, they can call plays to put players in positions they’ll thrive.

“There’s no reason we can’t have a set that no matter who is on the field, each guy is in an optimized position,” says Nathan Lemoine, LSU’s Sports Science Research Associate.

Marucci tested other areas this offseason, and working with the receivers only took a few minutes per athlete – the bulk of the work came afterward, parsing and analyzing the results.  He credits Ed Orgeron for empowering the program to embrace every technological edge it can get.

“I’ve been around a lot of coaches, and a lot of good ones,” he says. “Coach O is the most innovative, the most progressive, and he allows us to do so many things, and he takes input. It makes everybody excited to be around, and it allows you to keep growing and develop new ideas. 

“I feel like our foot’s on the gas pedal, and we’re flying.”

 

OBJ AND JARVIS. Dwayne Bowe and Josh Reed. These are the names Joe Brady thought of when LSU called and offered him a job as wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator in January, and these are the names he thinks of every day coaching his players.

“At LSU, there’s a mentality in that wide receiver room,” Brady says. “There’s a physicality, there’s that willingness to compete every single time. When I walked in the door as a coach, I didn’t have to coach that. It’s understood. It’s the Jarvis’s, the Odell’s, the Josh Reed’s, the Bowe’s before that set that foundation.”

Brady knows they’re watching. He tells his players just that. He expects them to live up to that standard, to continue that tradition and pass it onto the next generation of Tiger receivers. 

Don’t drop the ball, he says. You’ve been given an opportunity. Grab it

For all the physical work of the offseason – the 10,000 catches, the $14,000 glasses, the tunnel-vision-inducing goggles, the swinging doors – it’s the mentality Brady is most focused on with his receivers.

“I tell them – this might not be the right terminology, the right words – but I’ll be damned if those receivers before us turn on the games on Saturday, and they don’t see that physicality, that mentality from this wide receiver unit,” he says. 

They all get it. Brady says he’s “never seen anybody work as hard as these guys do.” They’ve tracked every ball caught and put in the summer workouts, the Saturday mornings timing routes with the quarterbacks and the extra conditioning to adjust to a no-huddle offense. They’ve added more mental work to their plates, too, as Brady’s implemented a new offense that requires every receiver to know every pass route concept, rather than a specific position.  

“They don’t blink,” Brady says. “There’s nothing that these guys waiver at.”

“Every single day, we try to outdo the other person,” Jefferson adds. “Say Ja’Marr catches one hand. Okay, I’m trying to catch a better one hander.”

All that hard work has bred increased confidence. They don’t make swagger-tracking glasses, but it’s easy to see with regular human eyesight the poise and presence every player in the room possesses. 

“As a receiver group, I feel like we’re the best nation,” Marshall says. “We’ve got one of the most talented rooms in the country. We’re going to make a lot of plays this year as a group.”

A new, egalitarian offense in which, as Brady likes to emphasize, “everybody eats” will certainly help the cause. So, too, will a summer of technological investment and creative drilling. 

It’s not one or the other, though, that will make the biggest difference, but the forging of all those factories with a collective mentality that’s been threaded through the program for years.

Jefferson, the third brother in his family to wear purple and gold, understands that tradition as intimately as anyone in the room. He’s heard the stories about Jarvis and Odell breaking into the facility at night and ruining a jugs machine with overuse. And He’s driven by every player in the wide receivers room – the ones whose pictures are on the walls, and the ones whose butts are in the seats.

“Having people like Odell and Jarvis, Dwayne Bowe – coming here, everything is DBU,” he says. “We’re trying to make that receiver name. It’s got to be that for us. We’re trying to make big plays and set records here.”

It’s like Brady says: get the popcorn ready. Everybody gets a bite, because everybody eats in this offense.

And, whatever you do, don’t blink.