Jarvis Landry finds his way at LSU

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU --  LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry bows after making a touchdown reception during the fourth quarter in Baton Rouge on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry bows after making a touchdown reception during the fourth quarter in Baton Rouge on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012.

by Matthew Harris

mharris@theadvocate.com

Jarvis Landry learned how to lay a man out cold in his mother’s kitchen. Straddling the line between childhood roughhousing and adolescent high jinks, the future LSU wide receiver was just a boy stuck inside on a rainy day in Convent.

An aunt and uncle dropped by for a visit with their son in tow. Forbidden by Dietra Landry from picking up a football and running outside, Jarvis and his cousin settled on the closest imitation.

“My mom didn’t want us playing football in the house,” Jarvis said. “So we got on our knees and we were just tackling each other.”

Tumbling into chairs, the couch and the coffee table, the pair were goaded on by the hulking man looking on from the kitchen. Jarvis’ uncle Ernest Clayton III was the de facto father who, at 250 pounds, would pulverize Jarvis in pick-up basketball games but also sign the dotted line for his nephew to pull on pads and a helmet for the Dutchtown Mighty Dragons youth football team.

“You’re not going to let him do that to you now?” Ernest bellows.

“No, no,” Jarvis answers.

Long before kickoff returners feared him buzzing downfield to lay out crumple-inducing hits and unsuspecting safeties kept their heads on a swivel to avoid de-cleating blocks, Jarvis was the whipping boy of his larger cousin — also named Ernest — left with scant options after striking the first blow.

Ernest the Younger gives chase around the island in the center of the kitchen. Suddenly, Jarvis halts. As his pursuer rounds a corner, Jarvis sticks out an arm and fells his cousin.

“After that,” Jarvis said, “they had to pull him off me.”

Youthful enthusiasm

If nothing else, you remember Jarvis Landry crumpling Auburn kick returner Onterio McCalebb in 2011.

How the freshman gunner veered and weaved through blockers in navy jerseys. How he juked and sidestepped a would-be blocker. How McCalebb, spying a seam to his left at the Auburn 23-yard line, didn’t see the Lutcher product lower his shoulder. There’s McCalebb’s head snapping back and Landry’s full mass compressing him into the turf.

On the cusp of his junior season in Baton Rouge, Landry’s image is strictly that of a quicksilver receiver, one whose initial burst off the line and acceleration inside 10 yards makes him a nightmare to handle on slants and crossing patterns — routes where his skill in space can let him rack up yards after snaring a throw.

Now, the conversation turns to whether Landry, who amassed 573 yards and five touchdowns on 56 catches last season, can produce more consistently and whether his mammoth hands — measuring almost 101/2 inches across — can avoid drops as the Tigers offense make an earnest effort to stretch the defense under new coordinator Cam Cameron.

Two years after Landry made a name for himself as a heavy hitter on special teams, LSU’s season opener Aug. 31 against TCU in Arlington, Texas, is the first glimpse of how his trademark physicality blends with experience accrued over two trips through the SEC wringer.

“I’m always on a crash course,” he said. “I’m either going to hurt myself or hurt somebody else. It’s not with the intent of doing it intentionally. I’m just willing to sacrifice everything.”

Sacrifices

Pull up to the white-painted, cinder-block compound of Lutcher football, next to the fleet trucks caked in gravel dust, and walk inside the building otherwise known as The Dog Pound.

Settle in before coach Tim Detillier, who reclines in his chair in an office where framed reproductions of newspaper front pages from New Orleans and Baton Rouge hang on the wall.

In the foyer, there’s a photo of the 2006 Bulldogs. There’s a scrawny kid with the No. 28 on his chest, far from the digits synonymous with him now. A 14-year-old Jarvis Landry is in the eighth grade, mimicking the hard faces of the boys whose season ended with a Class 4A state title.

“He was just another kid when you saw him in a T-shirt,” said Detillier, who is preparing for his 22nd season at his alma mater. “But on the field, you’d notice him in a heartbeat.”

The irony: Jarvis almost wound up a Dutchtown Griffin — a near-miss bearing more instruction about toughness than early playing time can ever instill.

But by the time Jarvis was on the cusp of middle school, Dietra’s worst fear was on the cusp of reality. After a divorce in 1998, Jarvis and brother Gerard’s father vanished from the picture. Until then, Dietra had been a homemaker, doting on sons separated by seven years.

“I had never worked,” she said. “I had to go out in the workforce, and there were a lot of things that I hadn’t ever done on my own.”

Clayton was the familial nucleus. A concrete layer, he signed up Jarvis at age 12 for youth football. He pitted Jarvis and Gerard against each other in pickup basketball games played on a makeshift goal: a bike rim tacked up to a light pole. He drove them to Lutcher football games and practice, an immersive experience in trying to shape their competitive instincts.

“If there was somewhere I couldn’t go because of work, all I had to do was call him,” Dietra said. “That was it. He was in the car and on the way. It was a done deal.”

To carve out a life in Convent, Dietra worked nights as a security guard and traveled to area homes during the day doing hospice work. Making ends meet in the riverside hamlet of roughly 700 people sometimes meant Jarvis only saw her for two hours a day. Gone, too, was Gerard as he prepared to enroll an hour’s drive north at Southern.

“I didn’t get a chance to see my mom for a few days because she’s working,” Jarvis said. “My brother’s not home. My grandmother is not old, but I still had to help her. It was school, ball and spend time with my grandmother.”

It also explains why Dietra didn’t want her sons to stray too far when they left to play in college. Gerard spurned Colorado — the only Bowl Championship Subdivision school that offered him a scholarship — for Southern and Jarvis ultimately picked LSU over .

But Dietra faced a dilemma. In Lutcher, seventh- and eighth-graders roamed the halls with peers five years their older, and she worried whether Jarvis was adequately prepared emotionally for the age disparity.

So Dietra took a seemingly unusual step: She relinquished legal custody of Jarvis to Elmo LeBeouf III, who had been Jarvis’ youth football coach in Dutchtown. During the week, he would stay with LeBeouf and his wife while Dietra worked. During the weekends, he would come home.

“She was selfless in how she cared about me,” Jarvis said. “Her intentions were never to give me away. It was just to find better. It made me realize what a tough choice really is.”

Stepping forward

Gerard’s cell phone buzzed constantly the night before Southern faced Tennessee State in Baton Rouge, and his voicemail piled up with variations of the same question:

Did you hear what your brother did tonight?

Ten calls later, Gerard rang up a buddy back home to ask what exploits Jarvis, only a freshman at Lutcher, had pulled off against rival East Ascension.

“Your brother scored five touchdowns,” the friend said.

That night, Sept. 21, 2007, Jarvis hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass to draw Lutcher within a point. But quarterback Blaine Gautier was flushed from the pocket, scrambled and was tackled less than a yard from the end zone on a two-point try, yielding a 48-47 loss in overtime. Jarvis’ brilliance, which resulted in 600 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns that season, wasn’t enough.

Jarvis’ emergence only occurred after tragedy summoned him home. In March 2006, Ernest Clayton III died of a heart attack in his home, a loss that clearly shook Dietra. With Jarvis on the cusp of high school, the plan had been for him to remain in Dutchtown. Now, the idea of not having son nearby was untenable.

Meanwhile, LeBeouf had lost his father several months earlier. Both families reeled from the loss of their patriarchs.

Jarvis found himself isolated. Pursuing sports frayed ties with childhood friends. Gerard was poised for his junior year at Southern, but Ernest’s death left a pall over the Landry clan.

“I felt this emptiness and loneliness,” Jarvis said. “I’m by myself, and it was never that way when he was living. He was always over, or I was always over at his house. So I tried to find light in everything else.”

Corey Bourgeois, who took over as Lutcher’s wide receivers coach in 2006, knew Landry’s potential earlier than most. As an LSU student, the Lutcher native did a student teaching stint at Dutchown Middle School. On his roll sheet: Jarvis Landry. During class, the two talked about Gerard’s career, and Jarvis promised to turn out the next year.

That summer, Bourgeois tried something unorthodox. He took the receivers to the Lutcher tennis courts. He rolled out the ball machine, firing fuzzy yellow orbs at receivers. After catching 10 of them, players took steps forward. Jarvis snared every one fired his way.

“I don’t know how fast they were coming out of the machine,” Bourgeois said. “But he was catching them everywhere: out in front, side of his body, over his head.”

Over the next five years, Bourgeois often ferried Jarvis to and from Convent when he couldn’t catch another ride. Sometimes cocky and boisterous around teammates, Jarvis could be inquisitive and thoughtful one-on-one.

“It was obvious that his mother was his everything,” Bourgeois said. “So he would cling to any male that took an interest.”

The devotion to Dietra partly explains Jarvis’ decision to sign with LSU. Over the course of his recruitment, Louisiana ties figured prominently in the calculus.

Early on, Tennessee appeared close to luring Jarvis to Knoxville, with New Orleans native Frank Wilson and Larose’s Ed Orgeron on Lane Kiffin’s staff. But Kiffin bolted for Southern California in December 2009, taking Orgeron with him as Wilson — a St. Augustine graduate — joined Les Miles’ staff in Baton Rouge.

Not that it dissuaded Orgeron, a former national recruiter of the year. Once, Detillier picked up his cell phone to hear Orgeron’s Cajun-tinged accent yelling over the line.

“Is there anywhere to land a plane in Lutcher?” Orgeron asked.

“Are you nuts?” Detillier answered. “You can’t land a plane in Lutcher.”

Dietra also was skeptical. Gerard had been recruited by Colorado, but the distance and a recruiting scandal made her leery. She had little trouble holding her tongue.

“I’m not scared,” she said. “There are a lot of people that will come into your home, sit down and talk with you about doing right by your son. But they really don’t care.”

Ultimately, LSU proved it had Jarvis’ interests at heart, she said.

“None of the coaches came in and said the main issue was getting Jarvis is his degree,” she said. “Les Miles was the only one.”

Helping matters was that Dietra, who would attend Jarvis’ games Friday night before traveling Saturdays to see Gerard’s games with Southern, could still pull on a No. 80 jersey and settle into a seat at Tiger Stadium.

On the ball

Despite standing 5-foot-11 and weighing barely 160 pounds, Jarvis yearned for contact. By his senior year, when he already had committed to LSU, the Bulldogs lined him up at linebacker for two seasons while he developed a reputation as a nasty downfield blocker.

“When I got a chance to play defense my junior and senior years, I was in heaven,” he said. “I just wanted to smack people.”

Lost in all the YouTube montages, circus grabs and gaudy receiving numbers, which included nearly 3,400 yards and 49 touchdowns, was the fact that the five-star prospect derived his identity from setting the edge.

“It didn’t matter whether it was blocking or catching — he just wanted to be physical,” Detillier said. “He didn’t look like that when you look at him, but once you played against Jarvis or watched film, he was intimidating.”

In practice, he would rarely throttle down. On swing plays or edge runs, corners and safeties would have to be on the lookout for Jarvis cracking down. Of all the hits Jarvis doled out, the toughest came in a team scrimmage ahead of the 2008 season. Quarterback Gavin Webster bolted down the sideline, and Jarvis spied a linebacker closing in. Peeling off his route, Jarvis blindsided him as Webster stepped out of bounds.

“I liked being fearless and to make the guys around me better,” Jarvis said. “Unless guys are put in those situations, or some cases hit hard, they wouldn’t pay attention to all that was around them.”

Seven years later, Jarvis can see that the root of his aggression might have run deeper than simply toughening up his teammates.

“You just keep all of that bottled up,” he said. “There have been games that I have played out of aggression and anger, just because I couldn’t talk to nobody.”

Brotherly love

At the time, the man once called G-Money bowled over poor souls in SWAC secondaries.

In the sweltering summer, Gerard would don a spandex unitard with compartments for weights, fill them and rip off sprints. Lying on a weight bench, he could rep out 405 pounds three times. By his senior season, the man once pragmatic about contact was ravenous about thumping opponents.

“Going to his games and seeing him breaking out and having success makes you think, ‘I’ve got to do this,’ ” Jarvis said. “He always stressed to me there was no other way around it. His motivation just sort of filtered into me.”

The close proximity was a boon for Jarvis. During lulls in June and July, Gerard would ring up his younger brother with a simple query: Hey, man, want to come up here and chill with me?

“I was cool with everybody in our cafeteria, so I could feed him for free,” Gerard said.

Jarvis was “a damn good linebacker” by the end of his junior season, when he racked up 105 tackles.

“He was physical enough to stop the run but agile enough to cover the back out of the backfield,” Detillier said.

But Jarvis idolized his older brother, with whom he’d stay up late and dissect game film. He would drop to the ground and punch out 10 push-ups for every dropped ball thrown by Gerard in passing drills. And he emulated the violent hits Gerard dished out while trying to gain extra yardage after catches.

“Back then, it was still hard for me to understand it when he said, ‘The game is always bigger than you,’ ” Jarvis said. “I think his ability to be hard on me made me tougher mentally. I was prepared for a lot of things in high school that people in my position couldn’t handle.”

Workouts meant footwork or blocking drills where the 170-pound Jarvis faced cover men with 20 pounds on him. When Gerard came home to Convent, the duo would do sprints up and down the nearby levee. Or, if they really wanted a challenge, they’d jog up and down its slope in a zig-zag pattern for two miles.

“He would give his me his old game tapes, and I wouldn’t take my eyes off him,” Jarvis said. “I only listened to him. He was my coach, and I believed everything he was teaching me.”

It was the way Gerard cut a paternal figure.

“It was my job to take on that role,” he said. “It fell on me to have that daily communication with him over the phone. You need to let them know, ‘If you ever need me, just call.’ ”

Watching Jarvis crack down on future teammate James Wright in a 27-6 romp over Belle Chasse showed that Gerard’s lessons took hold. On an edge run, Wright, now a senior at LSU, rolled down to wrap up Lutcher’s Daniel Taylor. Breaking in from the slot, Jarvis crumpled Wright.

In the Lutcher football office, Jarvis’ blindside block as a senior against Scotlandville is the clear winner. On a swing play, Taylor cut back inside before finding a seam up the right sideline. Landry had been in tight on the formation and worked vertically downfield. Angling toward his own 40-yard line, Taylor was being sized up by safety Jonathan Stokes. Focused on the tackle, Stokes failed to turn his head as Landry stepped in with his shoulder, sending the would-be tackler head over heels.

Then there’s the time a Helen Cox player took a swing after Jarvis locked up with a defender on a simple swing pass out of the backfield, driving him to the turf. At some point, playing through the echo of the whistle filtered down to the rest of the receiving corps. If it was a cutback play, foes had to watch out.

Lutcher was looking to level you.

“The biggest thing for me was making sure he kept his head enough not to put himself at risk,” former Lutcher offensive coordinator Dwain Jenkins said. “Sometimes you wondered if he was close to losing control.”

Finding his role

The answer would figure to be easy and definitive.

Two years ago, Jarvis broke his foot on the final play of the final day of LSU’s summer workouts. His first preseason camp passed with him in a protective boot, which left him searching for any way to see action. Being the gunner on returns, the dirtiest job on the field, one filled by defensive stars such as Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks, seemed to fit his ethos.

And there is something alluring about wreaking havoc in chaos, dashing 50 yards or more while 10 foes try to drive you off course — a contest that still appeals to Jarvis.

“I didn’t have to think so much,” he said. “You just run. When you play fast, you play physical. And me seeing things so much, it became easy.”

Yet the scope of his focus has narrowed, too. In the apartment he shares with teammate Odell Beckham Jr., the pair have a lone television. They rarely watch cable, instead preferring game tape, classic footage of LSU greats such as Early Doucet or Brandon LaFell. Sometimes they play Candy Crush.

“It’s knowing your body and being smart,” Beckham said. “It’s something you’ve got to ask yourself: Is this what I want to do? Or do I want to play receiver?”

Beckham said Jarvis is learning the fine art of moderation in dispensing hits. Gerard has lectured his little brother on the fine art of “finesse over fight” and “get your yards, get out of bounds and get on to the next play.”

But before he leaves the Charlie McClendon Practice Facility, the reforming thumper sounds wistful.

“It’s funny,” Jarvis said. “The faster I run, the clearer things become.”