Jamal Adams is bringing the swagger back to DBU the only way he knows how – by force
[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”80″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]J[/mks_dropcap]amal Adams hesitated.
It doesn’t happen often. Not even for just a second.Never on the football field. The ball is snapped and instincts take over. From his safety spot, he reads, reacts and is barreling down a full-speed collision course in the blink of an eye. Maybe quicker.
No offensive coordinator’s wrinkle can freeze him. An unbalanced line, an unconventional set or good old misdirection, Adams has seen it before and he knows his role in stopping it. He’s got a bloodhound’s nose for play fakes and trickeration. Anticipate, lock on, and pursue like a heat-seeking missile. Not a moment wasted. Not a step lost.
Even as a sophomore, he’s the same way in an interview room. Cool, calm and collected. Confident, even. He’s comfortable, and the conversation continues on devoid of the cliché, almost-rehearsed coachspeak that often drivels out of an athlete’s mouth.
But before answering this one question, he takes a brief pause to consider before replying.
Three framed photographs adorn the back wall of the meeting room just right of the lobby inside the Football Ops Building on Skip Bertman Drive.
Playing in the secondary at LSU is like joining football’s most fanatical cult — “a brotherhood really,” as Adams sees it — and on this wall depicts the holy trinity of DBU. Back in the atrium, the fruits of their labor surrounding you.
Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne were DBU’s finest cornerbacks because of freakish athleticism and technical dominance. Tyrann Mathieu, on the other hand, earned his place on the wall with a nasty streak, a mesmerizing array of ball skills and an uncanny instinct for making the big play.
The same descriptions are now being applied to Adams. Fans and reporters feel alike recognize the striking resemblance. The similarities seem so obvious that he’es even likened to Mathieu in the first sentence of his official LSU bio.
But the question that gave him such rare pause: Does he see it?
“A lot of people say that,” Adams says, “and I respect that and I’m cool with Tyrann, but that’s him. What he did when he was here was outstanding and I’m trying to reach that or go beyond that point. I feel like as a player, and as me, I’m going to always try to do what I can do. I’m never going to try to be like someone. I’m going to always be Jamal. I’m not going to be anyone else. Comparisons are okay, but I’m always going to be myself.”
Adams gazes across the room and continues: “One day I hope to be on this wall next to these guys and be recognized as one of the best.”
Brash as it sounds, his sentiment isn’t meant as a boast.
It’s simply the mindset required to be a defensive back at LSU, where good isn’t good enough. Where to be good is to be recruited over.
“There’s a standard that’s been set here years ago,” Adams says. “As a player, you have to come here with high expectations. You have to film study. You have to work every day. You have to do everything possible you can do so you can be on this wall or be as good as one of these players.”
Fair or not, that standard hasn’t been kept.
There’s been good players and solid units since, but ever since the faithful August afternoon the Honey Badger was abruptly dismissed from the program, something’s been missing.
That larger-than-life presence that strikes fear into the opponent. That force of nature that opposing coaches gameplan against all week but still comes up with the big plan when his team needs it most. That indelible swagger everyone else on the team – hell, the crowd, too – can feed off of in moments of doubt.
Adams could be the transcendent player who brings it all back.
GEORGE ADAMS HAD EVERY REASON to turn his back on the game.
An All-SEC running back at Kentucky, the New York Giants drafted Adams 19th overall back in 1985. He showed great promise during a productive rookie year, but a devastating hip injury suffered during training camp the next August cost him the entire ’86 season and never fully healed.
Adams was out of the league after being released two games into the 1991 season. After multiple hip replacement surgeries, he unsuccessfully filed suit against the Giants.
Even still, when his son Jamal was born four years later, George knew the same talent that had made him a first round pick pulsed through his son’s veins.
So, when Jamal was just three years old, George put him on a football field for the first time.
“I was so excited to see my son go out there and play the game that I loved and cherished,” George says.
But, at least at first, George wasn’t so sure his son would follow in his gridiron footsteps.
“He was chasing butterflies, picking up rocks and messing with the grass,” George says. “I didn’t know if he was going to be a football player that year, but he came back the second year and it was like night and day. He just turned around like he knew. He was paying attention the first year when I didn’t even think he was.”
It was just flag football, but Jamal grew into the star of the team playing quarterback, running back and safety.
By the time Jamal reached middle school, the kid who preferred to throw rocks had matured into a two-sport star who excelled on the field and the hardwood — just as George himself had done as an All-American hoopster growing up in Lexington.
“He came to me when he was about nine years old, and he asked me, ‘Dad, one day I want to play with LSU or Florida. Do you think that I’ll be fast enough?’” George says. “And I said, ‘Son, you will be fast enough.’ And that’s what he did.”
After a powwow with dad, Jamal decided to give up hoops to focus on football heading into his freshman year at Hebron High. That dedication paid off, with the 14-year-old Jamal winning a starting safety job for the Division 5-5A Texas powerhouse.
The transition was grueling, but he says the crash course in physicality prepared him to hit the ground running as a rookie in the SEC. It put a chip on his shoulder that made him the intense, in-your-face competitor he is today.
“Texas football man, there’s nothing like it,” Jamal says. “I’d always been the biggest kid in my grade and all the sudden I wasn’t. It helped me learn to be mature. It helped me learn that the game would be faster at different levels.
“All you can do is just go 100 percent every play and let that energy take over. And then other guys around you can feed off that.”
George was right. No matter how fast the game got, his son kept pace stride for stride.
FIVE FOR FIVE WAS THE RALLY CRY. Turned out two would do just fine.
LSU was a finalist for five different five-star recruits set to announce their commitment decisions at the 2014 Under Armour All-American Game. And in the hours leading up to kickoff, rumors flooded the Internet predicting the Tigers to land all five blue chippers.
Adams went first. Coming of a District MVP season, the consensus five-star and top-rated safety in the class had his pick of suitors. He’d widdled his the list down to two finalists: LSU and Florida.
A personal connection gave the Gators the insider lane from the start. Joker Philips was the Florida receivers coach at the time. He and George Adams met on their official visit to Kentucky and wound up being teammates and roommates for four years in Lexington. The two stayed so tight after football that George made Philips Jamal’s godfather.
“Honestly, I’d always been a big fan of both growing up,” Adams says. “It came that time, and God just answered my prayers. He really came through for me. I felt LSU was the best fit for me and I still believe that to this day.”
The elation for LSU fans was short. Message boards and recruiting sites seemingly melted down as Edna Karr teammates Speedy Noil and Gerald Willis and Texas corner Tony Brown all spurned the Tigers to pledge their respective talents to SEC rivals.
Leonard Fournette’s decision to stay home kept the sky from crashing down in Baton Rouge, but given the hysteria of five-for-five mania, the day was still viewed as a mixed bag at best by the LSU faithful.
As the two future Tigers chatted on the field after the all-star game concluded, none of that negativity existed.
“It was wonderful, man,” Adams says. “I was just at a restaurant earlier watching the guys compete at The Opening and I told my girlfriend that it feels like just yesterday that was me. It’s crazy how fast time flies.”
A year and a half have passed since Adams, his family behind him and 8-month-old niece on his lap, announced he’d be spending the next four years of his college life at “the University of LSU.”
As the only member of five-for-five to be named a Freshman All-American last season, it’s safe to assume he earned himself a pass for the popular ‘university of’ faux pas.
SUDDENLY IT ALL JUST CLICKED.
There had been a bit of an adjustment period for a bright player who’d never had experienced one before. Even Texas high school football doesn’t fully prepare a freshman for all the complicated technical and mental aspects of big-time college ball.
But Adams came in ready to put in the long hours and compete, so the veterans went out of their way to take the precocious rookie under their collective wings.
“It was just his willingness to learn and the way he carried himself and went about his business,” junior corner Tre’Davious White says. “He pretty much came in and learned the defense on his own. When you see a guy like that who’s so eager to learn and get better, you want him on your team and you want him to be successful.”
Sponging as much knowledge as he could from the older defensive backs — in particular Ronald Martin — Adams proved a quick study. In the meantime, he honed his heavy-hitting chops as a gunner for the suicide squad on kickoff coverage.
After seeing only sporadic playing time through the season’s first seven games, Adams earned his role secondary. Just in time for his dad’s alma mater to come to town.
“That game was when I really started to explode and show the fans and the world what I could really do,” Adams says.
Adams racked up a then career-high eight tackles against the Wildcats, including five solo stops and his first sack. He followed up that performance with five tackles and three pass break-ups in LSU’s 10-7 upset of undefeated Ole Miss.
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“Once I learned everything, I felt like I could go and just play without thinking. The first couple games, I was thinking too much and not reacting. Not just playing ball. But once I figured it out, it was all out.” – Jamal Adams
“Once I learned everything, I felt like I could go and just play without thinking,” Adams says. “The first couple games, I was thinking too much and not reacting. Not just playing ball. But once I figured it out, it was all out.”Mirroring Fournette, Adams’ rookie rise crescendoed to a head in the season’s final two games.
The safety led the team with eight tackles (seven solo) in LSU’s 23-17 win at Texas A&M. He was the best defender on the field against Notre Dame, making a career-high 10 stops — including one in the backfield to stuff a fourth-and-one — in the Music City Bowl.
In 13 games and just two starts, Adams tallied 66 tackles, including five for a loss, and placed second on the squad with 38 solo takedowns.
There’s only one glaring hole in his stat line — turnovers. Close calls and near misses aplenty down the stretch, but ultimately no cigar in the takeaway department.
This season, Adams will be counted on heavily to be a ballhawk patrolling the middle of a defense that picked off just nine passes in 2014.
Teammates are confident it’s only a matter of time before he gets one. Once the goose egg is broken, well, there’s that old saying about what tends to happen when it rains.
“You can tell just from the way he watches film and practices,” White says. “He practices at full speed trying to get the ball each and every play. I’ve never seen a guy that goes for the ball every play. He tries to strip it every play. He tries to make every play.”
“Ballhawk, got to be around the ball,” Adams says. “I was brought up to chase the ball. Run the ball. Anything to get my hands on the ball. I’m a true competitor and I just go hard every time.”
The feeling of déjà vu could only get stronger if Adams stripped a runner, batted the ball up to himself and high stepped into the end zone.
GEORGE ADAMS’ PHONE RINGS every Saturday night in the fall. Like clockwork. It’s a conversation he looks forward to all week.
Dating back before Jamal’s freshman year of high school, George has been in the stands for every game except one. The Adams clan was unable to make it to Gainesville last October because Michelle, the family matriarch, was tied up with work engagements.
“When he was in high school, I went to every practice for four years,” George says. “In the beginning, I had to ask Coach (Brian) Brazil, ‘Coach, is it okay if I come to the practices?’ And he was like, ‘George, I have no problem with that.”
“Don’t get me wrong, he brings it every time, but I talk about effort, I talk about aggressiveness, and I talk about mistakes,” George says. “I’m hard because I always talk about the bad plays, and then I catch myself and I talk about some good plays.”
Too much parental pressure can be a heavy burden on a son. But when that attention comes from a place of genuine compassion, a bit of tough love can lay the basis for the kind of strong support system that goes a long way in a young man’s life.
“Believe it or not, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” Adams says of his former NFL dad. “He keeps me humble. He keeps me level headed. He’s always staying on me to do the right things. He’s always been a father figure I can go talk to about anything. He’s been through it all so he sees things that I don’t.”
Close as they are, there’s one topic father and son will never see eye to eye on.
If the George Adams who scored the second-most touchdowns in Wildcats history and Jamal met in the open field, would the son be able to tackle his old man?
“We joke about that all the time,” Jamal laughs. “They say he was a big back at Kentucky, but I think I’d give him a run. I’d probably try to lay him out.”
George, who says his running style was a lot like former Tennessee back Arian Foster’s, contends junior would be biting off more than he could chew.
“It would be tough for him to tackle me,” George says. “I know he’s going to give it all he’s got, but I would make him eat that mouthpiece.”
There’s no question where Jamal gets his penchant for trash talk from. It’s genetic.
KEVIN STEELE HAS BIG PLANS for the not-so-secret weapon that is his sophomore starting safety. The newly-hired defensive coordinator has a reputation as an aggressive coach, and part of that mentality means giving Adams the schematic freedom to react off instincts.
However, Steele may have to put his foot down to set up some boundaries or else his budding star is going to follow his nose all the way to the other side of the ball.
Throughout spring practices, Adams lobbied Cam Cameron to give him a shot on offense.
“If they could get me in at receiver just for a little bit, I could show them what to do,” Adams says confidently. “Punt return. Anything. I really beg the coaches all the time. Coach Cam laughs at me, but he says he’s really serious about trying to get me in. I think it could really happen.”
Adams had done well in high school, turning just 81 offensive touches into 930 yards and 20 touchdowns over the course of his junior and senior seasons. He’d have done more, but George Adams asked the coach to not play him so much on offense once it became apparent his future was at defensive back.
If he gets any snaps any offensive snaps for LSU, he’ll be boldly blazing a new frontier for the DBU fraternity. Not even the holy trinity of Peterson, Mathieu and Claiborne played both ways — at least not in college.
No one knows Jamal’s game better than the father who carefully watched and mentored as he grew from a kid chasing butterflies to a hard-hitting, playmaking All-American.
Like father, like son?
“If he gets his hands on the ball, you’ll see the vision and the way that he runs,” George says. “It’s just natural.”
If Cameron doesn’t oblige, Adams says he’ll just have to take matters into his own hands and go get the ball himself.
LSU is certainly banking on it.