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Baton Rouge, La. • Karl Malone Jr.'s welcome to Southeastern Conference football came long before he walked through the tunnel of LSU's Tiger Stadium.

Having come from a small private school in northern Louisiana, the son of the Utah Jazz legend was accustomed to dominating his opponents as an offensive lineman. Not anymore. "In high school, I could just touch someone and they'd go flying," he said. "I tried to do that here the first practice, and I got hit."

Malone, who goes by K.J., smacked a fist into his palm to make the point. "It woke me up," he said. "It's fun, though."

And four years later, as a fifth-year senior who earned a degree in May, he's preparing for a season that will begin with an especially meaningful moment for him as a Utah native: The Tigers will meet BYU in Houston on Sept. 2.

"I always wanted to play either Louisiana Tech, Utah or BYU before I was done playing college football," Malone said one morning last winter in the LSU football complex. "Now I get the opportunity."

Malone was delivered shortly after the Jazz's first-round playoff loss to Houston in 1995. He was 8, attending Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School, when his father's Jazz tenure ended. He's the third of four children born to Kay and Karl Malone during his father's basketball career.

The kid who grew up dodging the rubber ducks his father threw at him in the Jazz training room's ice tub has become a vital member of the Tigers. At 6 foot 4 and 303 pounds, he's a shorter, heavier version of the Mailman. Malone became the starting left tackle for an LSU offensive line, anchored by center Ethan Pocic, a second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, that Pro Football Focus graded No. 1 for its performance last season. Athlon's 2017 preview issue ranked LSU's line No. 5 in the country.

Malone's status is surprising to some observers in Baton Rouge, who once pegged him as a career backup. His rise is a tribute to the family traits of persistence and effort. "He totally has Karl's work ethic," his mother said.

"It's been a tremendous thing to see him succeed," said Ben Haddox, Malone's coach at Cedar Creek School in Ruston, La. "He's really gone down there and flourished."

As a son of a Basketball Hall of Fame player, Malone "had to deal with a lot of things that a lot of kids don't have to deal with," Haddox said. "With that comes a lot of negativity. He worked incredibly hard to become what he's become."

Malone's early years at LSU were difficult. He was known to call his mother and ask, "What'cha doin' tomorrow?" She would reply, "I'll see you at lunch," and drive four hours from Ruston.

K.J. Malone eventually got his chance to play. "A lot of times as parents, you get caught up in it and don't let coaches do their job," Karl Malone said. "We want them on the field. … [but] they brought him along like they told us they would. He just stayed the course and waited his turn. Was he upset? Of course. … He took his lumps. He got knocked on his a—, but he got up and knocked people on their a—."

K.J. Malone credits offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, who held a similar job at BYU from 2004 to 2006, for his rise in the program. "He's one of the best in the country," Malone said. "He's helped me develop not only as a player, but as a man. That's helped me big-time, just because I let stuff get to me easily when I mess up. He's taught me to put that behind me and come back."

And now Malone could have an occasional role beyond blocking in new offensive coordinator Matt Canada's scheme. Could you picture Karl Malone as a tight end? His son is said to have the best hands and athleticism of the Tiger linemen, and a Pittsburgh tackle caught two touchdown passes in Canada's trick plays last season.

Mostly, though, he'll block for Derrius Guice, a Heisman Trophy candidate, in LSU's run-heavy scheme. Malone has helped make himself into an NFL prospect, amid other ambitions. He considered skipping his senior season of football to pursue membership in the U.S. Marshals Service, an elite group with duties that include chasing fugitives and protecting witnesses. "I have tremendous respect for this country," he said.

Malone's parents love football (Kay grew up in Texas), and they've followed his career closely. In Ruston, Haddox described Karl Malone as "an everyday guy" who wanted to be known just as "K.J.'s dad."

Haddox refers to him as "Mr. Karl." Or maybe that should be "Mister Karl," the guy who would strap a water carrier to his back and spray the Cedar Creek players during hot, humid practices and serve them watermelon afterward.

In Baton Rouge, the Malones enjoy watching their son walk down Victory Hill on game days and run through the tunnel of Tiger Stadium in front of 100,000-plus fans. The season opener is booked for a neutral site, so BYU won't get the full LSU experience. But the Tigers draw well in Houston, where their fans will occupy a high percentage of NRG Stadium's 72,200 seats. As Kay Malone recently tweeted, "BYU is going to learn what football means in the [SEC]."

Twitter: @tribkurt —

Karl Malone Jr. at a glance

Birth • May 8, 1995, Salt Lake City

Family • Parents Kay and Karl Malone; sisters Kadee, Kylee and Karlee

High school • Cedar Creek (Ruston, La.)

Education • Graduate student; degree in inter-disciplinary studies

LSU accolades • Starting left tackle for offensive line graded No. 1 in 2016 performance by Pro Football Focus; ranked No. 5 in 2017 preseason by Athlon Sports