Updated: Jul 26
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
When identifying the most exhilarating and swaggering reliables on LSU's 2022 offense, everyone will start with Kayshon Boutte, then move on to John Emery Jr, Jaray Jenkins or throw around Myles Brennan's name....although outside of those key veterans, no other Tigers on roster lit up LSU's fanbase quite like second year WRs Malik Nabers and Jack Bech.
Instant friends since meeting each other at an 8th grade football game, the Lafayette-born tandem were instant gratification Tigers, making a major impact as freshmen:
During the second half of a disappointing 2021 campaign, Nabers and Bech took turns igniting & supplying LSU's suffering fanbase with much-needed swagger and confidence:
The Lafayette duo pulled off acrobatic mid-air grabs, scored crucial touchdowns, burned defenders after the catch with searing pace or salacious moves, rocked Death Valley, rolled over the Tide in Tuscaloosa, and celebrated each other's touchdowns as if they were their own.
Combining for 7 scores, their debut season at LSU stood as a strong indication of what is ahead for the duo this fall:
After scoring 4 TDs and recording 417 yards from just 28 catches, Malik was named to the All-SEC Freshman team while Jack led LSU in catches (43), placed 3rd on the team in yards (489) and 3rd in the SEC for missed tackles forced (17).
However, it was Nabers & Bech's magnetism and on-field swagger which really set the Death Valley crowds into a fever dreaming fury of divine Saturday night revelation, their Cirque du Soleil touchdowns transcending into iconic celebrations replete with handshakes and dances...the Death Valley crowd couldn't get enough. At one point during the Central Michigan & Auburn games, it felt as if Bech, a true freshman, began to orchestrate the crowd's rising, deafening roar all by himself.
Images of Malik & Jack, selflessly celebrating each other's accomplishments like rock stars, arms draped around shoulders, had a powerful effect on an LSU squad desperate for unity & energy; After being depleted by season ending injuries, the NFL Draft, or transfers & opt outs over the past two years, losing almost every coach on staff.....we needed Tigers to believe in.
Well....here they are....
"Me and Malik are our biggest fans and biggest supporters," Jack Bech told LSU Odyssey about his friendship with Nabers, "that's my brother, we love each other. Every time you watch film and he does something good, I'm the first person to him or if I do something good he's the first one to me, so it's like pushing each other to be the best we can....to limits that we don't think we can surpass..........but then we do...."
The two freshmen Tigers immediately became emblematic of LSU's exciting future & possibility....an ensuing dominance which had already arrived in the here and now.
"It's a God thing," Malik's proud mother Tonya described watching her son and his best friend establishing themselves at LSU so early, though their road to this point was never so certain:
Bech and Nabers weren't unlikely friends, in fact, they were also teammates on the famed Bootleggers 7 v 7 outfit, but their future paths were headed in wildly different directions before December 16th, 2020....almost sending the two a thousand miles apart....
Right up until Early National Signing Day, Malik Nabers had made peace with heading to Mississippi State.
Nabers committed to Leach's staff that summer and despite leading all Louisiana high school WRs with 21 TDs throughout 2019 at Comeaux, he was greatly underrated among 2021's pandemic-effected recruiting cycle.
It all started before his senior year, when he transferred to Southside....
Following his transfer, the LHSAA ruled Malik ineligible, citing obscure transfer rules which left Nabers on the sidelines for his entire 2020 senior season. The lack of appearances also limited his recruitment, specifically with LSU or other top schools at a critical time.
Amid the pandemic-shortened season & his ineligibility, Nabers was hurting; it was tough to have what he loved taken from him. In response, he began to keep his head down and grind; with a little help from his family and friends, Malik worked harder than ever before:
"I stayed strong when I didn't have a senior year...through my Mom, Uncle, my Cousins and my brother Dillon," Malik recalled. "You know they all kept my head focused on the mission. Whether I was playing or not, I was still focused on just proving the people wrong, (the people) saying 'I wouldn't be the same cause I had a year off'."
As his mother Tonya told LSU Odyssey, during this time, Malik turned misfortune into his own football boot camp:
"Obviously he was sad, but he used that negativity to fuel himself. He couldn’t play, so he made sure he coached his team up. Never missed a game. He was out there helping the wide receivers and the cornerbacks. He used that time to train day and night with his cousin Jordan. Just because you didn’t see him playing didn’t mean he wasn’t working. He was practicing more than ever. I sat him down and told him 'don’t give someone else power to write your story'."
As Malik battled without his senior year, Jack Bech set records at St Thomas More with then-LSU target and current Tiger QB Walker Howard, backing up his dominant 20 TD junior season with an even stronger campaign over less games, racking up 1,1,59 yards & 16 TDs in just 10 outings, eclipsing 200 yards in the semi-final and title games as STM won back to back championships.
All the while, Louisiana locals (and us) raged at how Jack wasn't receiving much attention from LSU. Eight performances over 100 yards (3 over 200) and no offers, let alone the heavy recruitment his abilities & LSU family ties deserved:
The nephew of two different LSU Tigers, Blain and Bret Bech, son of LSU graduate parents Marty and Michelle, while dominating Louisiana football for 38 touchdowns over his last two seasons, Jack was somehow on the outside looking in as the 2021 cycle wound down....and time was running out;
By mid October, there was still no offer from LSU.
To illustrate how unlikely their present pairing at LSU should have been, the Tigers' former WRs Coach Mickey Joseph & Head Coach Ed Orgeron declined to offer either Malik or Jack until deep into the fall;
Meanwhile, Miss State & Vanderbilt were about to get the steals of Louisiana's 2021 wide receiving crop in Nabers & Bech, both reluctantly prepared to head out of state.
"Jack is like my brother and when we was being recruited. we was under looked," Malik Nabers told LSU Odyssey about this time period, "so with me and him going through the same thing, (it) just brought us closer and we both wanted to prove people wrong about both of us."
Starting in late October and ending on November 4th, once Jack was finally offered by LSU, he decommitted from Vanderbilt and committed to the Tigers; With Bech on board & an offer sent Malik's way, the future complexion of Joseph's WRs room began to change...relying on Louisiana talents when LSU needed them most....
With the ESD decommitment of 5 star WR Jo Jo Earle, trading his Jeaux Jeaux nickname in for Saban's Crimson Tide, suddenly, LSU's pinnacle 2021 WR class just lost their assumed #1 guy....and Orgeron's Tigers were desperate for another receiver.
On the same fateful day, December 16th, word trickled around the recruiting world: Malik Nabers was prepared to flip on Early Signing Day....
.....hours later, with a big sigh of relief & jolt of excitement, Malik announced his last minute flip from Leach's Bulldogs to Orgeron's Tigers.
At long last, the two Boot Boys were LSU-bound....yet they responded as if their promotion were just another day, working extra hard throughout the winter and spring to stay in shape for their summer landing in Baton Rouge.
All that was left to do?
Make dreams into reality.
Once the pair arrived on campus in June 2021, LSU coaches continued to raise the roof when discussing either Malik Nabers or Jack Bech, lauding both for their work ethic, abundant talents and obvious desire.
This was nothing new for the pair:
"We would always work together when it came to football," Malik told LSU Odyssey, "me and him wanted to be first and it's still like that. He wants to see me at the top and I want to see him there before me. The bond that me and Jack share is like brother to brother."
Accordingly, any worries over Nabers' conditioning (after missing his senior year) were quickly laughed away:
Reports from practice showcased the Lafayette freshman tearing it up against elite corners and safeties, with footage of Nabers bossing Eli Ricks making the rounds.
Regardless of practice film hype or coachspeak, no one knew just how much LSU would actually rely on the freshmen pair:
As Jack was stuck out of position at tight end, or Malik found himself stationed behind a deep group of veteran receivers in make or break years, few analysts predicted their rise.
But once LSU battled each other in scrimmages at Death Valley, news exploded out of the locker room: Jack Bech and Malik Nabers were for real, even former Head Coach Ed Orgeron went so far as to suggest either could start for LSU that coming fall.
Entering late August, adversity came knocking for the Lafayette freshmen once again, with Nabers injured only a week before LSU played UCLA inside the hallowed Rose Bowl.
Right on the cusp of his first games in over 2 years, Malik's injury came at the worst moment, providing the kind of scenario which would plague or curse most other young players; While he would miss LSU's first couple games, given these circumstances, the manner in which Nabers rebounded to finish his debut season would be a near miracle.......
Meanwhile, with an injured Malik cheering him on, Jack experienced a few on field opportunities and passed every test, taking his first LSU target for 17 yards vs UCLA. Despite his ability to create obvious mismatches, Bech wasn't properly utilized within former Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz's offensive schemes.
It was beyond frustrating for the young freshman Tiger....
Regardless, Bech made a stand, establishing himself after a commanding performance & one handed TD catch vs Central Michigan, backed by strong showings with limited touches vs Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama...catching the eye of every top CFB/SEC analyst worth a damn.
While Jack was making the best of his "receiver playing at tight end" fate, his friend Malik had to work his way back to full game fitness....catch by catch.
Starting with his first LSU reception in garbage time vs Central Michigan & second vs Miss State, Malik gradually gained back momentum from his time on the sidelines, playing his first football in just under two calendar years.
After so long out, his time was coming...and in Lexington, at the end of a humiliating defeat to Kentucky, a game in which #1 WR Kayshon Boutte went down with a season ending ankle injury, Nabers' first big LSU moment arrived:
Taking a pass from former QB Max Johnson, Malik split Kentucky's coverage & hauled in his first ever LSU touchdown; Rising high above a defender, Nabers kept his concentration and caught the ball twice, even after Kentucky's safety swatted the ball out of his grasp. On the second bite, Nabers' hands pinned the ball against his outstretched legs as he went to the ground.
The catch remains an empirical display of vulgar power....aerial dominion of the highest order....playmaking with such authority you felt the words "I'm Next" pulsing from Nabers' athletic echoes of Jefferson, Reed, Chase, Marshall, Clayton, Henderson....
Over his next 7 appearances, as the roster & coaching staff were more or less gutted by off the field injuries, transfers, firings and the NFL Draft, Malik would score 3 more touchdowns, catch a filthy TD @ Ole Miss, erase ULM for 143 yards, and join his close friend Jack among the current LSU receiving pantheon, all as Bech nearly beat Alabama and pulled off equally dominant showings.
Carrying more or less a full season of experience, a year of turbulent off the field issues during the Orgeron era, Jack and Malik are prepared to fly high under the guidance of new Head Coach Brian Kelly & WRs Coach Cortez Hankton Jr, both new coaches adapting well to life at LSU...and quickly establishing relationships with each player.
"He treats me like I'm a son," Malik told us about first year WRs Coach Cortez Hankton, "He's a great example to me, teaches me about the world & life...."
"I have a lot of trust in Coach Kelly," Jack Bech added, "He has a lot of trust in me. We can just talk about different things, related to football or not, it doesn't matter, it's deeper than that. I love Coach Kelly and the staff he's brought in."
Heading into their fall sophomore season, highlighted by Jack's rise as a true team leader, Malik's widespread talents, as well as their combined fanbase popularity & national ascendancy, both have only continued their rapid climb to the top of LSU's roster following a monstrous 2022 off-season thus far (culminating in the duo's brilliant performances during the Spring Game: combining for 3 TDs).
Make no mistake, after meeting Tyrann Mathieu, Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Leonard Fournette and other Tiger legends this Spring, Jack and Malik are under the microscope as the next generation of LSU greatness.
From decorated true freshmen to sophomores entrusted with winning games & carrying on LSU's high octane receiving tradition.......will Jack and Malik be up to the task?
For Nabers, there's no pressure towards him or Jack heading into year two:
"...This year, be expecting a lot of celebrations and hype plays from both of us," Malik declared, pumped about the future.
As for me?
I wouldn't bet against either of 'em....
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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