To hear Zach Mettenberger tell it, Anthony Johnson isn’t the only “freak” on the LSU football team.
The guy who’s on the field when Johnson isn’t, wide receiver/kick returner Odell Beckham Jr., also qualifies.
“He’s just a freak athlete,” Mettenberger said of Beckham. “Coach (Cam) Cameron says he does a lot of things a lot of NFL receivers can’t do. Just the speed Odell has alone makes him a versatile player.”
Mettenberger’s words aren’t just a quarterback heaping praise on one of his favorite targets. Beckham has been the target of a lot of appreciation lately.
The coaches’ preseason All-Southeastern Conference team was released Thursday, and Beckham’s name was all over it.
The junior from Newman High School was selected as a first-team return specialist, a second-team all-purpose athlete and a third-team wide receiver.
Beckham was the only player named three times on the All-SEC squad. He caught 43 passes for 713 yards and two touchdowns last year while returning 35 punts for a 9.1-yard average and two scores and five kickoffs for 15.8 yards per return.
“It’s great,” Beckham said, “but it doesn’t mean anything unless you go out there and execute, perform your job. At the end of the season, I hope I can be on those lists.”
If Beckham sounds like he demands a lot of himself, it isn’t the first time.
During last year’s game at Florida, with the Tigers struggling to generate any semblance of offense in the third quarter, Beckham hauled in a long bomb from Mettenberger but fumbled at the end of the 56-yard play. Florida turned right around and marched for a touchdown in the 14-6 victory.
After the turnover, Beckham retreated into a self-imposed media ban for well over a month.
“It seemed like for the team, it just dropped them,” Beckham said in November after he began speaking to reporters again.
Nearly a year removed from the fumble, Beckham is more philosophical in his approach to dealing with the highs and lows of playing his position at a high level.
“Jerry Rice has had bad games,” Beckham said. “We’ve all had bad games. You can’t let it break your focus. You have to use it to make you stronger.”
Perhaps Beckham used his low point as a receiver to make him better as a kick returner — and deliver a game-changer in a positive way for the Tigers.
The season’s biggest highlight for Beckham came six weeks after the Florida game. On Nov. 17 he took in a punt at the south 11-yard line in Tiger Stadium and weaved 89 yards through would be Ole Miss tacklers for a touchdown, the margin of victory in a wild 41-35 LSU win.
The punt return drew immediate comparisons to the legendary punt return by LSU Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon in 1959: same opponent, same distance, same direction.
Not entirely the same, Beckham insists.
“I have to take my hat off to him,” Beckham said of Cannon. “He broke like six or seven tackles. I just ran away from everybody. (Cannon’s return) was a great play in history.”
Still, if you can be mentioned in the same sentence with Cannon’s football exploits, it can’t be bad.
Beckham is used to sharing billing. His father, Odell Beckham Sr., played running back for the Tigers from 1989-92. His mother, Heather Van Norman, was an All-American track star for LSU, helping the Lady Tigers capture five NCAA championships from 1991-93.
Beckham said the bond with his father is close, the contact between them frequent. Odell Beckham Sr. is both father and mentor to his talented son.
“We talk about anything,” Odell Jr. said. “We talk football a lot. He knows the ins and outs and what to do. Ever since before I committed (to LSU) he told me, ‘I’ve got you if you just listen to me.’ He’s done a great job with that.”
Beckham treats his place on the LSU team as a job. In addition to his work on the field he spends hours watching video of himself and other players, seeking to find a nuance that will improve his game.
“I watch (former Tiger) Patrick Peterson, Ted Ginn, Jacoby Jones,” Beckham said. “That’s probably my easiest way of learning.”
Returning kicks has always been part of Beckham’s repertoire going back to his days of playground ball.
Yes, he was dangerous on returns then, too.
“They kicked off and you have everyone running down field and you were trying to read blocks and find the hole and hit it as fast as you can,” Beckham said. “It’s something I love doing.”
After a few returns on the playground, the other team would shout not to kick it to Beckham.
He hopes to make opposing teams say the same thing this season.
“That’s my plan for this year. We have big goals for punt return,” Beckham said.
And for the passing game. And for kickoff returns. LSU’s opponents will find there’s no getting away from Beckham in 2013.