By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
BATON ROUGE — The fact LSU junior wide receiver Malik Nabers needs 284 yards and 12 catches to become the Tigers’ all-time leader in receiving yards and catches speaks volumes about how you finish college careers and not how you start them.
He may become the first person to win the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver who never played a down as a high school senior because he was ruled ineligible after transferring schools.
“I was on the practice squad my entire senior year,” Nabers said.
He may be the first Biletnikoff winner to start a season (2022) fumbling two punts, as he did in a one-point loss to Florida State.
“Every time I played another game, I had flashbacks about that (the fumbles vs. FSU,” Nabers said.
And then ending that same season as the runaway Most Valuable Player winner in the Citrus Bowl.
“It (the FSU fumbles) drove me to change the narrative about me,” Nabers said.
As the No. 15 Tigers (7-3 overall) prepare to play their final two regular season games – both in Tiger Stadium vs. Georgia State on Saturday at 7 p.m. and vs. Texas A&M on Nov. 25 at 11 a.m. — Nabers has developed into a 2024 NFL first-round draft choice projected as the second or third receiver chosen.
It’s still heady stuff for someone who didn’t even think about playing college football until he finally put aside baseball and was placed on the Lafayette Comeaux High varsity football team as a sophomore, where he caught a TD pass in his first game.
“I think he’s the best wide receiver in the country,” LSU head coach Brian Kelly said of Nabers. “I’m sure that (Ohio State) coach (Ryan) Day is going to say that his guy (Marvin Harrison Jr.) is the best, and I totally understand that.
“I think he (Malik) is multi-dimensional, leading the country in receiving yards. I think he’s the best receiver in the country and deserving of being a Biletnikoff Award winner.”
In what is likely his final season, Nabers already has 72 catches (equaling his 14-game total from last season) for a nation-leading 1,284 yards and 10 TDs, which is more than his two previous LSU seasons combined.
What has separated him this year is he has 469 yards after the catch or 36.5 percent of his yardage. His knack for lining up in the slot and turning a short slant route into a gain of 20 or more yards — which he has done 30 times — is a result of his off-season work on quickness and acceleration.
“I wanted to be more explosive and improve my running after my catches,” Nabers said. “Every year, I’ve tried to up my game level. I got faster my sophomore season and this year I got way faster.”
Kelly said Nabers’ improvement isn’t by accident.
“His skill level has always been there,” Kelly said. “At times last season, he got distracted. He had some ups and downs during his practice.
“This year, very little to no distractions have put him in a position where his practicing has consistently put him at a high, high level. His ability to come out every single day, maintain his emotion, and focus on what’s important – being at his best during practice and not being distracted by anything.”
Nabers also has taken a jump because he developed a close-knit relationship with starting quarterback Jayden Daniels.
“It’s a great relationship that we have outside of football and it makes our football relationship a lot stronger,” Nabers said. “We’ll go shopping, things like that. I joke with Jayden that he spends too much money on clothes and jewelry. Getting to know the person behind the helmet increases our trust when we’re out there on the field making plays.
“We’re on the same page a lot, especially on different reads. He can still get me the ball when I’m facing bracket coverage. It’s me and him being on point.”
And for those rare times opponents repeatedly try to cover Nabers 1-on-1 – as Mississippi State did when Nabers had 13 catches for 239 yards and two TDs in a 41-14 win on Sept. 16 – Daniels will throw the ball in Nabers’ direction all game long and trust he’ll come down with it.
“I have a mindset that when the ball is in the air, I just feel like it’s always mine,” Nabers said, “because the quarterback trusts me enough to make that play.”
In 35 games during his LSU career, Nabers has 172 catches for 2,718 yards and 17 TDs. Wendell Davis holds the school record for career catches with 183 (set from 1984 to 1987) while Josh Reed has the career yardage record of 3,001 (set from 1999-2001).
Nabers has already joined Reed as only the second player in LSU history with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Becoming LSU’s all-time receiving leader was never Nabers’ objective when he signed with the Tigers in 2021. But winning the Biletnikoff has been his ultimate individual goal.
“After seeing (former LSU wide receiver) Ja’Marr (Chase) win it (the Biletnikoff) in his last season (2019),” Nabers said, “it was also a receiver goal, when I came to LSU, to win it.”
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