BATON ROUGE, La. -- When LSU wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig instructed his players to give themselves nicknames prior to the season, he refused to accept any of Malachi Dupre's selections. Craig would only allow the one he gave to Dupre himself.
"Coach Craig told me whatever I gave myself wasn’t going to be acceptable, because he wanted me to be Mike Tyson regardless," Dupre said.
Observe the laid-back junior for only a few moments and you quickly realize there is nothing about him that is reminiscent of the former heavyweight champion boxer. That’s exactly why Dupre’s fiery new position coach handed him the nickname.
"He told me I needed to get angry and mean," Dupre said. "I knew how Mike Tyson boxed. I watched videos of him. That’s what he wanted, and he said I embodied that in practice."
Leading up to Saturday’s game against Southern Miss, however, Dupre sometimes looked more like the timid challengers that Tyson demolished on his way to becoming one of boxing’s greatest intimidators. Dupre struggled to make contested catches -- like when he came down with just three of the 11 passes Brandon Harris targeted him with in the season-opening loss to Wisconsin -- and got off to the slowest start of his college career.
Dupre entered the season as one of the top NFL prospects at his position, but had not lived up to that billing with 15 catches for 136 yards and no touchdowns through the first five games. Previously a lethal deep threat, Dupre hadn't come down with a single pass that covered more than 20 yards in the air, with LSU quarterbacks going 0-for-6 with two interceptions when targeting Dupre on such throws.
Against Southern Miss, Dupre finally delivered a couple of haymakers. He capped a 28-0 third-quarter run by hauling in a wide-open pass from Danny Etling and converting it into a 63-yard touchdown catch. He followed that by catching a 23-yard pass over USM defensive back Kelsey Douglas and gracefully tapping his toe in the back of the end zone for LSU’s final points in a 45-10 victory.
"The high-point ball, that’s what I do," Dupre said of the acrobatic touchdown catch. "I didn’t do a great job of that in the beginning of the season, but those are the type of plays that I’m supposed to make."
Dupre finished the night with a season-high 100 receiving yards and two scores on three catches, earning the touchdown that "felt like it would never come." Dupre led the Tigers with 11 total scoring grabs between 2014 and 2015, so his fellow receivers reveled in his breakthrough performance for 2016.
"We all know Malachi’s a big-time receiver, big-play receiver," said receiver D.J. Chark, who caught three passes for 91 yards and also scored a pair of touchdowns. "We haven’t really had those big plays yet this year, and seeing them tonight, it’s like something we’ve just been waiting for. We’re all brothers, and seeing Malachi make those plays, me and Travin [Dural] were probably more excited than he was."
It remains to be seen whether Dupre will keep it up after breaking out against Southern Miss. There are several talented pass defenses remaining on LSU’s schedule, so success won’t come easily.
But if he manages to return to top-tier status down the stretch, it will have been the 63-yard bomb off a play-action fake -- when cornerback Trae Collins and safety Devonta Foster allowed Dupre to run free before safety Curtis Mikell nearly closed the gap and tripped up the LSU receiver -- that finally set the wheels in motion.
"I couldn’t believe it," said Dupre, who waved his arm wildly while running the route after realizing that nobody had covered him. "When [Etling] said, 'hut,' I don’t know what the cornerback was thinking, because it wasn’t a cornerback blitz. He just ran in and I started screaming. Danny said he heard me screaming and he said he faked the ball to [Derrius Guice] and he said he just turned and saw me and threw it as far as he can. But I was screaming at the top of my lungs, 'Yo, yo.'"
Receivers sometimes drop such passes -- perhaps stunned by the good fortune to be so wide open -- but Dupre had no such issue. He reeled in the pass, slipped away from Mikell and regained his balance to coast into the end zone.
"I think a lot of receivers think, 'Don’t drop it,'" Etling said. "I think that’s not what goes through Malachi’s head. He thinks, 'I’m going to score this thing no matter what.'"
That he did, and Dupre hopes it was the first of many more to come this season -- even if the first half of his season was hardly what he expected.
"I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t feel great," Dupre said. "It’s been a long time coming. We started off slowly, myself especially, in the passing game. It just felt great."