It seems appropriate to start an article with Justin Jefferson’s nickname. He hasn’t always had that nickname. He was given it when he was playing at LSU. He almost didn’t make it to LSU. Justin Jefferson was always overlooked, and that is fine with him.
Justin comes from an athletic Louisiana family. His mom and dad were both college athletes. Justin was the youngest of the three boys in the house. His oldest brother Jordan (8 years older) played QB for LSU from 2008 to 2011 starting 32 games for the Tigers. He is now a coach at Colorado State. His brother Ricky (4 years older) was a defensive back at LSU from 2013 to 2016 and is now a member of the Las Vegas Raiders after spending time on the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints.
When Justin was very young he always wanted to be like his older brothers, playing sports. Evan as a 3 year old he would try to heave up shots at the basketball hoop like his older brothers. He loved to play football with his brothers. He never wanted to stop playing.
“I got a limit,” Rickey said. “He never shut down. Like, we all love sports. There’s just some guys — that’s all they care about.” Everywhere Justin went as a child he would carry that football with him. When his brothers stopped playing in the field he would be still there for hours throwing the ball to himself. “It’s like he was destined to do it.” Ricky said.
No matter who or where he played Justin always expected to win. Justin entered the punt, pass and kick competition when he was 9 and made it to the national championship at Charlotte’s at Bank of America Stadium. He cared little about the plane ride, the hotel, or the NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Panthers and the Cardinals. All he cared about was the competition. He finished third in the contest and didn’t show a bit of emotion. “He was so upset,” his dad said. “It was his perspective.”
Justin was at LSU a lot as a child because his brothers played there. He would run around catching passes. He was good friends with head coach Les Miles’ son Ben. Justin would sleep over his house. So you would think Justin had a natural in for a scholarship. He did until in his senior year of high school Les Miles was fired, and a new regime took over.
His father had to help keep his hopes up when he entered high school and was 5’ 7” 125 lbs. Everyone he had played with was more mature. His brother Ricky was a freshman at LSU and a safety on the football team. His dad had to tell him, ‘Son, look around (at your family),’ ” his dad said. “‘You’re eventually going to get what they have.’”
Justin finally grew, but as a high school senior he still was a skinny 6’ 2” and 175 lbs. He was a two star recruit the #308th WR prospect in the country, #76 in the state of Louisiana, and the overall 2164th national recruit as per 247 Sports’ composite. He had a great senior year with 956 receiving yards and 9 TDs, but few teams recruited him.
What made things worse for Justin was he did not do well in school his junior year. He had to work really hard to get his scholastic achievements up to par, but he was still one class away as a senior from graduating. He had to make it up in a summer course. Most schools will not hold a scholarship offer open to a kid who may not qualify. He got offers from Tulane, Northwestern, Nicholls State and finally LSU.
“[New coach] Ed Orgeron told him he’s got a scholarship waiting for him whenever he’s ready. I have utmost respect for that,” his dad John said. “They stuck to their promise. As an LSU family, we respected that. They could’ve closed that door. He made that promise, and that gave (Justin) motivation.”
Jacob Hester, the former LSU running back, and Justin were both native Louisianans who received the final scholarship offer in their respective recruiting years. It is kind of a thing at LSU. Others who received the last scholarship are Lloyd Cushenberry (2016), Foster Moreau (2015), Russell Gage (2014), Duke Riley (2013) and Deion Jones (2012). All were good enough to get drafted.
Still Justin didn’t inspire confidence when he first arrived on campus. His teammate Grant Delpit said “He was skinny as hell.”
Just remember LSU is a team that has an insane amount of talent. Five star recruits are the norm, guys who could have gone to any college. “It was a little tough at first,” Justin said. “I was the small receiver. I came in late. Everybody thought I was a walk-on. I just had to come in and put in the work.”
He made the team without a redshirt his freshman year. He was a good downfield blocker who appeared in 6 games without a reception but did take an end around handoff for 4 yards.
The next year Justin was eager to become the receiver he knew he could be. Russell Gage and D.J. Chark had left for the NFL so Justin saw his opportunity.
“Especially as a receiver, to come in after Jarvis (Landry) & Odell (Beckham Jr.) who are also Louisiana natives , you have to have a high standard of trying to be better than those type of guys,” Jefferson said. “I didn’t expect to have a year like I did. I just wanted to come in and make plays.”
Justin had 54 receptions for 875 yards and 6 TDs with a 16.2 yard receiving average. He did so because he put in the work.
“Me and Jets (Jefferson’s nickname) came in every Saturday when I first got here,” said quarterback Joe Burrow. “We were working every Saturday at 9 a.m. He was working really hard, and when someone puts that kind of effort in, you can usually see it on the field in the fall.”
Justin credits his successes to his family, “Having two older brothers before me and being able to watch them and (learn from them) really helped my experience and the way I look at the game,” Justin said. “I kind of had that advantage coming into college because as a young kid growing up watching them, I’m seeing the different routes (they were) running. I just put that toward my game and could go off of that.”
“It was definitely tough growing up in that house, because all of us were athletic and strong and so competitive,” Justin said. Maybe all those balls he caught as a child while at LSU helped as well, it sure didn’t hurt.
Justin went into the 2019 season with high hopes of building off a strong 2018. Having another year with Joe Burrow was a blessing. So were the new offensive wrinkles that were put into place by new passing game coordinator Joe Brady. It was exciting.
To put it mildly Justin Jefferson had a monster year. 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 TDs in 15 games is phenomenal. His worst outing of the year was against Vanderbilt, but he was not needed as the team racked up 66 points in the win. His other least impressive game came against Arkansas in a 56- 20 trampling of the Razorbacks. Again he was not needed.
I could show you clip after clip of amazing plays, but let’s just see what makes Justin Jefferson so successful. I will highlight his two most impressive games, both huge wins against a quality opponents.
First what is Justin Jefferson’s skill set? What does he do well?
Jefferson is an speedy receiver, a natural hands catcher who wins a vast majority of his contested catches. He has a varied selection of nuances in his route running to help gain separation. He has an explosive first step that puts the coverage man in peril right away. He has great size (6’ 1 1/2” 202 lbs) for a receiver with a wide catch radius which he makes larger because of his exceptional ability to catch ball wherever it is thrown. He has excellent “hops” and high points the ball very well. He is a good blocker on crackbacks or downfield to help teammates. He is tough. He will travel anywhere on the field to make a catch. He is fearless.
What does Justin Jefferson need work on?
He could be more precise running his routes as he tends to round out some cuts instead of sinking his hips and making solid breaks. He may need some more strength to beat press coverage in the NFL. He did not face a lot of press coverage, and NFL corners are masters of taking you away from your route if you don’t have the strength.
So let’s see how he did against Texas in the second game of the year. This was a College Gameday spotlight game in Austin against an angry crowd.
This first play is a dig route into the teeth of the defense in a shortened area of the red zone.
As Jefferson makes the catch there are 4 defenders around him. He takes a wicked shot to the helmet but lives to tell about it. You can see him in the slot. He uses that lazy rounded cut out of the break that NFL safeties will read to jump the pass. When he gets to the man over him (#19) he should sink his hips and make a sharp cut into the opening.
When you sink your hips you lower your center of gravity allowing you to explode out of your break faster. This will gain you more separation.
This still is a nice play as he makes the tough catch without the “alligator arms” some receivers will have in tight areas. He is a courageous kid.
This next play is just a thing of beauty and one of my favorite plays of the entire college season. This play shows concentration, superior athleticism, great hands, and high point ability.
This was a nice throw that allowed Jefferson a chance at an acrobatic catch. He was the only player who could have caught this ball.
From a couple of different views you can see the mastery of this play.
This was good coverage as Jefferson was running a seam route. There were no cuts available to free himself from coverage. This play is an art form. It is akin to ballet with bruising aggression and violent collisions.
This last play was a clutch play. There are some players who can’t make the clutch play. They fail when greatness is upon them. Jefferson is not one of those players. He seems to relish the big moments. He shines when the lights are brightest, which in itself is a talent.
This is 3rd and 17 on the LSU side of the field with the Tigers clinging to a 6 point lead. Texas has only 1 timeout left, and the announcers are saying LSU should play it safe and run the ball.
With the crowd at a thunderous roar Texas blitzes leaving the secondary in man coverage, which was a bad idea. Jefferson is able to beat his man, crossing his face as he springs open. Joe Burrow puts the pass on the money as Jefferson breaks the poor tackle attempt for the score and the dagger in the heart of the Texas faithful. This was a huge play in the championship run by LSU. It gave then a huge boost of confidence that they rode all year.
In a huge game on the road in Texas Jefferson’s game line was 9 receptions, 163 yards, and 3 TDs.
These next plays are against Oklahoma in the CFP Semifinal.
This first play is again (I’m sorry) a rounded off route that could have been run better. It’s just a simple dig route that Jefferson runs against off coverage, and the CB does a lousy job all the way around.
Now it’s not Jeffersons fault the CB was poor. His speed did take him away from the tackle attempt, and he never quits on the play as he fights his way into the end zone. He showed some speed, a little power, and the good sense to reach the ball over the goal line once he was close.
This next play Jefferson is in the slot and is guarded by a safety in off coverage. The safety makes a fatal flaw as he comes up to a speeding receiver then stops his feet. At that point all Jefferson has to do is speed by him and make the catch.
Again it is not Jefferson’s fault that the safety stopped his feet, but he may have had a hand in making him do so. Another angle may tell a different story.
When Jefferson comes off the ball he does so very slowly which is why the safety comes up. Jefferson runs straight at the safety who doesn’t know which way Jefferson is going to go. This put the safety in a bad spot. As soon as Jefferson sees the safety stop his feet he hits the accelerator and flies on by. This is the nuanced route running I mentioned earlier. It’s subtle but effective in some instances. like this one.
This next play is nearly the same play run from the opposite side just a little bit deeper. The safety is racing over to help at the snap but is not fast enough to make it there in time.
If you see this from another angle you can see that Jefferson just rolls out of the break and gains no separation. If he cuts with authority he will explode out of the second break and be well ahead of his defender.
In the end Jefferson makes a nice athletic play. He waits until the last second to put his hands up and knocks down his opponent’s hands before he does so. This give him a split second to make the play which he does. It’s nice the ball is thrown a little to the outside. It gives just a little extra room for the catch and a huge play in the game.
This last play is a back breaker for Oklahoma as their chances of winning the game all but end with almost 10 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter. This is another contested catch and another win for Jefferson as he is able to corral the ball against his body and keep it away from his cover man then throw himself into the end zone.
From the end zone view you can see the way he accomplishes this as he makes a little jab step to the outside that freezes the defender. This is all Jefferson needs to cross his cover man’s face and into the clear. This is another nuanced move that is subtle but effective in gaining Jefferson that little crack in coverage.
This ball is a little short as you can see Jefferson has cleared his man by a couple yards but must wait on the throw. In this game, a semifinal Playoff contest, Jefferson had 14 receptions, 227 receiving yards, and 4 TDs. Jefferson also sat out the entire 4th quarter because the game was a laugher. His 4 TDs all came in the first half which is just amazing.
I think Jefferson projects as a quality slot/outside receiver in the mode of an A. J. Brown with the Titans. He may be a highly targeted receiver like he was in college (111 receptions) with the occasional big play thrown in once in a while. He can be a fantastic possession receiver who moves the chains but also slips a tackle here and there for chunk plays.
Justin Jefferson has a quality skill set to become a solid NFL player. He still has some work to do to clean up his game, but all rookies have that...some more than others. I can see Jefferson as a late first round pick or early second round just depending and how the other positions play out. He does play a large amount of his game from the slot so he will need to adjust to playing on the outside if a team needs him to do so.
That is what I think.
What do you think?