At LSU, wearing the No. 7 jersey is a big deal.
It is the same jersey that previous superstars Leonard Fournette, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson (among others) have made famous in the Bayou before taking their talents to the NFL.
Behind a breakout performance from senior wide receiver D.J. Chark -- this year's No. 7 for the Tigers -- LSU pulled off the third upset of a top 10 team this weekend, stunning Auburn 27-23 in the final minutes in front of a delirious crowd in Baton Rouge.
Chark, currently ranked fourth among senior receivers on NFLDraftScout.com's board, caught five passes for a career-high 150 yards Saturday -- a staggering 73 percent of the 206 yards thrown Saturday by senior quarterback Danny Etling in the win for LSU (5-2, 2-1 SEC) .
It was Chark's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, however, which proved the game's biggest play, helping to turn what had been a 20-0 first-half deficit into a just a two-point Auburn lead, one erased with two late field goals by LSU to complete an improbable comeback.
As noted on the CBS telecast, Chark earned the nickname of "The Flash" at LSU, a testament to the 6-foot-3, 198 pounder's rare straight-line speed, currently projected at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash by NFLDraftScout.com.
Chark showed off his game-breaking acceleration on the return, initially backpedaling and drifting to secure the catch near the numbers on the right sideline. Pinned into the corner, Chark made the risky choice to catch the ball on the run and attempt to out-flank the coverage -- a gamble only the speediest athletes can pull off against SEC competition.
Racing full steam across the field, Chark saw a seam and exploded, angling toward and eventually down the right sideline for the momentum-turning score, his second punt return for a touchdown already this season.
Chark's punt return was the perfect highlight-reel play to cap the day. From a scouting perspective, however, signs of his development as a receiver were arguably the bigger news, especially given that scouts had circled his matchup this week opposite Auburn's flashy junior cornerback Carlton Davis (a projected early NFL draft pick, himself), as one to watch.
Broad-shouldered, with a tapered, athletic frame and outstanding overall athleticism, Chark looks the part of a star NFL receiver. Terrific body control -- including agility, balance and burst -- allows Chark to elude defenders as a returner and after the catch and suggest that he could develop into a terrific route-runner.
For all of his gifts, Chark remains quite raw in the finer points at the position, struggling, at times, with consistent route-running and drops, especially in traffic. He entered the season with just 43 career receptions for 843 yards and three scores -- a stark contrast to the trio of senior receivers ahead of him on NFLDraftScout.com's board, Oklahoma State's James Washington (180-3,570-31), Washington's Dante Pettis (137-1,911-23) and Iowa State's Allen Lazard (197-2,729-20).
On Saturday, however, Chark showed improved polish, settling in the holes against zone coverage to move the chains, as well as extending his hands away from his body, at times, to pluck the ball. Unlike previous years in which LSU receivers often were only asked to run a few routes in a run-based, play-action vertical offense, Chark was used in the short, intermediate and deep zones Saturday.
A fourth-quarter deep ball down the right sideline that helped LSU maintain momentum was a huge play in this game. Just as important was the run-after-the-catch skills shown late in the second half when Chark caught a quick out in front of Davis, shrugged off a would-be tackle and sprinted 37 yards for one of LSU's only big plays of the first half.
To be fair, the 6-1 Davis enjoyed early wins in the showdown, recovering a fumble by Chark and showing off the length, fluid hips and route awareness that have the junior contending for All-SEC accolades. Further, Davis did not cover Chark on every pass Saturday, though he did at times shadow him across the formation when the wideout went in motion.
Following the game, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said that Chark "was challenged to be the bell cow." The senior receiver also noted that the presence of his former head coach, Les Miles, and members of LSU's 2007 national championship team at Saturday's game helped inspire him, stating that this game -- and not the stunning home loss two weeks ago to Troy -- felt more like a homecoming game to him.
If Chark continues his inspired play throughout the rest of the season and performs as expected in pre-draft drills, he may very well wind up the first senior receiver selected in the 2018 NFL draft.
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