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June 27, 2008
Byrd took unique path to football stardom
LSU wide receiver Demetrius Byrd doesn't boast the résumé of a typical first-round draft pick.
He played just one year of football at Miami Central High and originally signed with hometown school Florida International, arguably the worst Division I-A program in the nation. He never played there because of academic problems and instead spent two years at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss.
But Byrd somehow made the transition from college football hinterlands to playing for a national champion, and now he's one of the nation's top receivers.
"I knew I was capable of doing most of that," Byrd said, "but I kind of surprised myself with how quickly I made an impact on the team and stuff like that. I knew I had it in me, but I didn't know it was going to come out that fast."
Now that he has proved what he can do in the nation's toughest conference, Byrd won't be surprising himself any longer. He has set a list of goals that would make him one of the top receivers in LSU's history.
Byrd caught 35 passes for 621 yards and seven touchdowns to help LSU win the national championship last season. He wants to double those numbers this fall while contending for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes each year to the nation's most outstanding receiver.
He also is looking to improve upon his current status as a potential first-round pick.
"I'm not satisfied with that," Byrd said. "I want to be the guy where they say he's a top-10 or top-five pick. I'm working to hear that. When I hear people tell me (I'm a possible first-round pick), I tell them that's good, but it could be better."
Byrd's confidence apparently runs in the family.
"He'll be drafted in the first round," said Byrd's mother, Sharon Byrd. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it."
Actually, though, it wasn't too long ago that this can't-miss prospect couldn't play at all. Byrd nearly went through all four years of high school without suiting up for a single football game. Byrd admits he wasn't exactly a model student.
"I really wasn't focused," Byrd said. "I was pretty much doing my own thing.''
Sharon Byrd stressed that her son wasn't doing anything terribly wrong during his adolescence. Frankly, he wasn't doing much of anything at all.
"He just never took anything seriously. ... He loved his PlayStation," Sharon Byrd recalled. "And he loved the telephone.''
Byrd credits Miami Central track coach John Rolle for changing his outlook. Rolle didn't want to see a kid with world-class speed waste his physical gifts. He challenged Byrd by asking the underachieving student if he wanted to make something of himself.
That's when Byrd decided he wanted to join the list of Miami Central alums to play in the NFL – a fraternity that includes Willis McGahee and Najeh Davenport. He finally gained his academic eligibility in time for his senior season.
"Forget the quarterback," McCarthy remembers saying. "Who's the receiver?"
The receiver was generally ignored during the recruiting process by UCF and other programs because of an academic record that wouldn't allow him to qualify at most I-A schools. Although Byrd signed with FIU, he spent the next two seasons at Pearl River CC, where he soon proved that his senior-year performance at Miami Central was no fluke.
"I got a little bit of flak early from a couple of our coaches after we signed him," Pearl River coach Tim Hatten said. "His first ballgame, he had no catches and kind of tweaked his ankle, and a couple of guys weren't too sold on him. I told the guys, 'Be patient. Let's see what happens.' His second game, he had about 200 yards."
By the time Byrd finished his sophomore season at Pearl River, big-time programs weren't giving him the cold shoulder anymore. Byrd visited LSU and immediately knew that's where he wanted to finish his college career.
As fate would have it, that's where McCarthy finally got a chance to coach the guy he had enjoyed watching from afar. After moving from UCF to UCLA in 2006, McCarthy joined LSU's staff before the 2007 season.
But it took some time before Byrd looked as promising on the field as he did on videotape.
Byrd needed to complete his coursework at Pearl River and didn't officially join LSU's team until just before the start of two-a-day practices last summer. Byrd and true freshman teammate Chris Tolliver spent the early part of the season studying until 11 p.m. while trying to learn the playbook as soon as possible.
"He was so far behind the curve when he first got here that at one point we thought we were going to have to redshirt him or that his first year might be a wasted year," McCarthy said.
The turning point came Oct. 20 against Auburn as LSU tried to rebound from its first loss of the season. With LSU desperately needing a win to keep its SEC- and national-title hopes alive, Brandon LaFell dropped a number of critical passes. On one critical third-quarter play, a pass bounced off LaFell and into the hands of Auburn cornerback Patrick Lee, turning a potential LSU touchdown into an interception.
LSU's coaches searched for pass-catching alternatives and finally turned to Byrd, who had just 11 receptions through the first five games of the season.
"Here's your opportunity," McCarthy told him. "What are you going to do with it?"
Byrd responded by making one of the biggest plays of the season. He scored the winning 22-yard touchdown with one second left in a 30-24 triumph.
Two weeks later, Byrd caught a 61-yard touchdown pass in LSU's 41-34 victory over Alabama. He delivered a game-tying, 2-yard touchdown with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a 50-48 triple-overtime loss to Arkansas. And he also had a 27-yard grab for LSU's lone offensive touchdown in a 21-14 SEC Championship Game victory over Tennessee.
And he certainly has a world of ability.
In the past seven years, LSU has produced five receivers who were drafted in the first two rounds: Josh Reed, Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson, Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis. The Arizona Cardinals selected LSU receiver Early Doucet in the third round earlier this year. Byrd's 6-foot-2 frame and 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash give him perhaps the greatest upside of them all.
"Now it's just a matter of him continuing to work and not being satisfied with what he did last year," McCarthy said. "He has a chance to be a first-round pick, All-SEC, All-American. The sky's the limit."
Byrd's goals for himself indicate complacency won't be an issue. He wants to get drafted as high as possible in order to buy a new house for his mother, who constantly encouraged him to play to the best of his ability. And he also wants to set an example by showing that it's never too late to realize your potential.
"It's something I can look back on and say I came a long way," Byrd said as he discussed his football career's humble beginning. "It's one of those stories that can be talked about later on in life, when I get old and talk to my kids.
"I want to keep building on that story. I want to keep building on it. That's my motivation."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.