By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
The first recruiter from LSU to sink his teeth into JaCoby Stevens – perhaps the best safety prospect in the entire class of 2017; a ball-hawking playmaker equally comfortable meeting bruising tailbacks at the line of scrimmage or striding step-for-step with speedy receivers; a ready-made replacement for surefire top-10 NFL draft pick Jamal Adams and, realistically, a future top-10 draft pick, himself – never spoke a word in his life.
But boy, did Mike V have an eye for talent.
Stevens, born and raised just outside of Nashville, Tenn., was just four years old when he first stepped onto LSU’s campus for the first time. He was visiting his aunt and uncle, then and still Baton Rouge residents, when he passed by the brand new Tiger enclosure and, quite literally, caught the eye of the Tiger.
“When my aunt took me on campus to see Mike the Tiger, that’s when I fell in love with LSU,” Stevens says. “When I saw Mike the Tiger for the first time – I was just a little kid – that caught my eye. Ever since then I’ve been an LSU fan.”
The fan is now set to become a fan favorite. A five-star athlete prized by every program in the country, pursued by Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, and every other college coach with a pulse, Stevens is now a Tiger, thanks, originally, to the efforts of Mike V, who managed to capture the heart of a future superstar safety before he let out his last roar in 2007.
According to a university release in January, a new Mike is set to arrive in the fall — just in time to catch a glimpse of LSU’s next great safety.
BUCK FITZGERALD HAS seen his share of talent. A defensive back on Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team, Fitzgerald now runs the National Playmakers Academy, a Nashville-based organization that trains and prepares elite athletes for college football. He played alongside the likes of Peyton Manning and John Henderson in college and has coached seven NFL players and 15 Under Armour and Army All-Americans.
From day one as Stevens’ trainer – Stevens joined NPA as an eighth-grader – Fitzgerald was certain he had a shot to be one of his best prospects.
A year later, Stevens’ recruitment began heating up, as the rest of the country caught wind of what Fitzgerald had grown accustomed to witnessing on a day-to-day basis. Offers began flooding in from coast-to-coast; one of the first was courtesy of Fitzgerald’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee – John Chavis, who’d migrated further South and sought a safety to man his defense.
After Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M following the 2014 season, another ex-Vol-turned-Tiger spearheaded Stevens’ recruitment. Austin Thomas, then LSU’s director of player personnel and now the program’s general manager, established a relationship with Stevens that extended far beyond the normal territory of recruitment.
“When I met Austin, at first, I didn’t even know he worked at LSU,” says Stevens. “We just started talking and become friends, and later I found out he worked for LSU”
The two bonded over their shared roots. Both are from the Nashville area. Both love the game. Both are broad thinkers, whose interests aren’t just limited to football.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” says Stevens. “Our relationship goes beyond football. He’s a person I can trust no matter what. He somebody I can bounce things off of. He’s family.”
That, coupled with appeals from defensive backs coach Corey Raymond, who also earned Stevens’ trust early, helped LSU land a commitment from him in September 2015, an early victory on the trail and solid foundation for the Tigers to build upon for their 2017 class.
Then came the whirlwind of November 2015 that extended all the way until September 2016. Les Miles nearly lost his job, and eventually would. Austin Thomas briefly left for a position at Southern California after the 2015 season. The future at LSU was uncertain. As the November madness reached full-tilt, Stevens re-opened his recruitment.
At times, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama all looked to be leaders for Stevens’ services. But Thomas returned to LSU, with a promotion and a new contract. Miles was fired, but Orgeron and Raymond were retained, giving Stevens all the stability he’d need to feel secure about his prospects at LSU. In the midst of an All-American senior season at Oakland High School, during which he grabbed nine interceptions on defense and totaled 15 touchdowns as a receiver and a return man to nab Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Football honors in Tennessee, he re-committed to LSU.
Key amidst it all were Raymond and Thomas. Stevens told reporters at the Under Armour All-American game that Alabama pursued him all the way to the finish line, but Raymond’s contract extension, signed after the 2016 season, sealed the deal. So, too, did his tight bond with Thomas.
“The biggest factor in LSU landing him was Austin Thomas,” says Barton Simmons, the Nashville-based director of scouting for 247Sports. “He built a really strong relationship with JaCoby. When he came back from his short stint at USC, that’s when LSU was able to get back in the mix again. That trust factor there is going to be enough to keep Stevens in the fold.”
Stevens’ return to the class was the foremost of several criticals steps in the post-Miles stabilization process of the program. With his pledge, LSU set itself up for a certain top-10 class with top-five potential, and Stevens served as a signal to the rest of the nation’s top prospects: LSU isn’t going anywhere.
“His de-commitment wasn’t an attention play where he wanted to go through the process, so to speak,” Simmons says. “He wanted to go to LSU, but he didn’t want to go somewhere where he didn’t know who was going to be coaching there. There’s stability there now.”
STEVENS IS A veritable encyclopedia of LSU sports knowledge. His fandom is authentic, and it extends beyond the football field. He knows baseball, too – he was glued to the television during LSU’s march to the 2009 College World Series championship. He’ll wear the No. 3 jersey next season, a nod to a member of that team and fellow hard-hitting safety, Chad Jones.
As the heir apparent to carry the DBU title, Stevens knows exactly the shoes he’ll be filling when he takes the field this spring.
“It holds a huge standard,” Stevens says. “I pride myself on studying the game. If you are going to go to a college, you have to know the people that they’ve put in the league, that played there. The guys who come before you – Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Brandon Taylor, Craig Loston, Ron Brooks, Jalen Collins – guys all over the place that have done really well in the NFL and really well at LSU. You don’t want to be that DB that plays below that standard.”
There’s little chance, when it comes to Stevens, of substandard play. There’s a reason he’s the No. 1 athlete in the 2017 class. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and with 4.5 40 speed, Stevens arrived at LSU as an early enrollee in January with the physical tools already in place.
“He definitely has the measurables,” says Fitzgerald. “He has the size and the athletic ability. He’s going to stay focused, and he’s going to be coached by a great defensive staff. His upside is extremely high. I like how he compares to some of the defensive backs that LSU has had in the past. And those guys have gone on to do great things. I definitely expect that of him.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”I look at Jamal Adams and feel like I can do some of that stuff.”[/perfectpullquote]
With Adams NFL-bound, and Rickey Jefferson out of eligibility, Stevens knows there are reps up for grabs immediately. He spent last season and the days leading up to his arrival in Baton Rouge devouring film of Adams, marveling at his play and imagining himself in the same position as a free-roaming safety in Dave Aranda’s aggressive scheme.
“I watched Jamal Adams all the time,” he says. “I feel like I’ve done and played like he does. He can drop down and play man-to-man on a tight end, man to man on the slot. He can also be the deep Cover-3 safety that’s very rangy and covers ground. He’s also not afraid to stick his nose in the box and play around with those big tackles. I feel like I can do all that stuff.
“That’s one thing I pride myself off of, is being very versatile. I feel like the more versatile you are the more you are worth. I look at Jamal Adams and feel like I can do some of that stuff.”
He’ll also take the field alongside at least one other elite freshman safety in Grant Delpit, also an early enrollee. The two spent plenty of time together at the Under Armour game in December, and will spend all spring working together, developing invaluable chemistry sure to pay dividends over the next three years.
“Me and Grant complement each other well,” Stevens says. “Our position isn’t like a quarterback, running back, a left tackle a right tackle. You can have two safeties on the field. So I feel like in a way, it is competition, but we can both get playing time because we both have different games.”
Simmons spares no words for the pair.
“I really believe this is the best safety duo in the country,” he says.
That’s a high billing to live up to, and the play of the safeties who’ve preceded Stevens only raises the bar that much more. He’s dreamed of being a Tiger since he was four, though, on his first visit to the campus, and that dream grew even more vivid the first time Stevens showed up to LSU as an official visitor. It was in 2014, when LSU lost in heartbreaking fashion to Alabama in overtime.
The loss on the field became a win on the recruiting trail two years later. Stevens spent the day walking the campus, tailgating with future teammates, and talking to fans and family. And yes, he stopped by to see Mike the Tiger.
So by the time the clock hit zero, it didn’t matter to Stevens that LSU had lost the game. It had long since won his heart.
“That day actually made me fall deeper in love with LSU,” he says. “Even though they lost, it’s just something about the Tiger fans. It’s like they’re calling your name – ‘You’re the next one up. You can change this.’”