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LSU's LaFell faces NFL's higher education with Panthers

For a moment Sunday morning, five practices into his career with the Carolina Panthers, receiver Brandon LaFell was running with the first team and not looking totally out of place.

Still, he's quick to acknowledge that he's got a lot to figure out.

For the highlights of catching red zone touchdown passes from Matt Moore, he also came off the field huffing and puffing because he's not in the shape he needs to be.

"This weekend was a big learning experience, just to see how dudes do it in the NFL," LaFell said, dripping with sweat and still breathing heavily after walking off the practice field.

He admitted that there's work to do on his hands, and on the mental side of the game: Things as simple as breaking the huddle more quickly, so as not to disrupt the offense. Everything really, but conditioning maybe most of all.

"Steve Smith will go eight or nine plays straight and you won't see him bend over at all," LaFell said, still slightly panting. "We'll go two or three, because we're not used to this tempo."

LaFell has never been averse to extra work, however.

The former Louisiana State star considered coming out of school after a standout junior season in which he caught 63 passes for 929 yards and eight touchdowns. Then an old promise to his relatives made him reconsider, and sent him back for a year that might have caused his stock to dip.

Coming out of Houston as a standout high school defensive back and receiver, LaFell was recruited by most of the SEC powers, though his decision came down to LSU and Florida.

He was leaning toward Baton Rouge, especially after going there and watching future NFL wideouts Early Doucet and Dwayne Bowe working out.

But nothing they could tell him could carry more weight than mom's advice, could it?

"It's big when you disagree with your mom on a decision like that," LaFell said of the recruiting process. "Everybody says it's one of the biggest decisions you'll make in your life, and you want your people close to you to help you make it.

"(Florida coach) Urban Meyer came in and everybody was loving him - my grand mom loved him and my mom loved him even more. They liked what he was doing with the passing game. But I wanted to stay close to home. So I had to stay."

The flip side was that when he was considering leaving school after his junior season, 14 credit hours short of a degree in general studies, that he'd finally heeded his mom's advice.

"That was one of the things I promised my mom when I went to LSU," he said. "She wanted me to go to Florida so bad, she was like 'If you go to LSU you can't leave until you get your degree.'"

He also took a look at last year's draft class, and felt he'd have a better opportunity this spring. But his stats dipped as a senior (57 catches for 792 yards, though he had 11 scores), and people began to wonder if he really was an elite talent.

Certainly there were mitigating factors. He caught passes from six different quarterbacks, never knowing from one week to the next during his final two years if it would be Andrew Hatch, Jarrett Lee or Jordan Jefferson.

That's part of the reason Panthers receivers coach Tyke Tolbert - himself an LSU man with some insight to the program - never bought the idea that inconsistency was Tolbert's problem alone.

"I know their situation," Tolbert said. "Yeah, Brandon can work on a lot of things, but a lot of things weren't his fault as well. There were some inconsistencies as far as what he's being taught, at LSU to what I'm going to teach here.

"I think he'll adapt well to how we'll do things and I think he'll be a better player because of it."

Tolbert knows something about rookies contributing quickly, as he coached Anquan Boldin to 101 catches and a Pro Bowl berth in Arizona in 2003, and later had Lee Evans his first season in Buffalo, when he caught a career-best nine touchdowns.

When he looks at LaFell, he sees a physical receiver who can run, whose problems are the kind that can be ironed out.

While coaches often hesitate to compare players, he'd admit that LaFell's faster than Boldin, though not as physical from the start. The fact LaFell that walked in the door talking about his love for blocking was also a plus, considering that's part of the job description here as much as catching passes.

Though LaFell's speed and size were evident over the weekend, there were a number of passes thrown his way that weren't cradled away.

LaFell said the only prescription is more time with the Jugs machine, catching extra passes every day. He said the quarterback situation at LSU was "somewhat of a factor," but wasn't looking for an excuse.

"It was kind of a distraction, but at the end of the day, I've got to be more consistent, and catch more balls," LaFell said.

"That's something I need to work on more. Me and coach were just talking about it, getting on the Jugs, and when everybody else is stretching or warming up, just get on the Jugs and catch a few more by myself.

"Me and Jimmy (Clausen), we're young guys and we need to get on the same page, and Matt (Moore) also. So it's just building that up, not just one day but whole season."