JaCoby Stevens loves LSU.
He really, really, REALLY loves LSU.
That’s often not unusual for a Louisiana native, but Stevens, LSU’s All-SEC senior safety, was raised in Murfreesboro, Tennessee 30 miles south of Nashville.
His parents are Louisiana natives, his father Jeremy from Crowley and his mother Dionne from Bogalusa. When they took the 1,200-mile family trips from Tennessee to Louisiana, young JaCoby made sure his parents awakened him on the return home just before they crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.
“I wanted to get a good look at Tiger Stadium,” Stevens said. “You had the big bridge and you saw Tiger Stadium off the Mississippi. It was a beautiful view.”
Stevens’ heart ached as a nine-year old in 2007 when Alabama avenged a regular season defeat and spoiled LSU’s dreams of a perfect season with a 21-0 win over the Tigers in the national championship game.
“As a kid growing up and watching LSU, I was so invested as a fan,” he said. “I loved the atmosphere through the television. I was drawn into the culture and Baton Rouge.”
He nearly cried in January during the Tigers’ celebration of their 2019 national championship with an on-campus parade and an hour-long program in a Pete Maravich Assembly Center packed with purple-and-gold-clad fans.
“It was actually a dream come true,” Stevens said. “Being in front of all those people in the PMAC and throwing beads to them at the parade was when it hit me that we were national champions.”
He could have entered April’s NFL Draft as an underclassman after he finished second on the 15-0 Tigers with 92 tackles.
“But I wasn’t done with LSU,” Stevens said. “I wasn’t done with the college experience.”
Now, the 6-2, 230-pound Stevens is back ready to go the distance for a fourth and final year, the undisputed veteran leader of the defense. He’s also one of the players most likely to receive the team’s No. 18 jersey awarded annually by the LSU head coach du jour and trainer Jack Marucci to high-character, unselfish “team-first” players who are leaders.
His name is included on the watch list of some of college football’s most prestigious postseason honors, including the Chuck Bednarik Award, Jim Thorpe Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
“It’s pretty cool to be put on a watch list, but it’s not the actual award,” he said. “I still have to play; I still have to watch film. I still have to get better and that’s my focus. I’m focused on making it to fall camp, taking it one step at a time and letting it play out.”
Stevens committed to LSU in August 2016 before his senior season at Murfreesboro’s Oakland High, de-committed in November after LSU coach Les Miles got fired in September, re-committed in early December after interim coach Ed Orgeron was hired as head coach, signed a couple of weeks later in the early signing period and enrolled in January 2017.
“I wanted him to go to place where he was wanted,” Jeremy Stevens said of his son’s choice.
But it seems as if all those trips for JaCoby as a kid to Louisiana, with stops in Baton Rouge to see an uncle who took the Stevens’ family to the LSU campus for frequent visits, planted the seed for JaCoby’s college choice.
“We had conversations on which colleges he wanted to attend when he was eight,” Jeremy Stevens said. “At the time we were in Tennessee and he wanted to go to Vanderbilt. So, we tried to go to different colleges and visit. We stopped at Alabama.
“At LSU, I showed him stuff about Pete Maravich. What topped it off, though, was Mike the Tiger. That was it.”
JaCoby was sold on LSU. He conducted his own research on the school and delved further into the program as an aspiring defensive back. He became smitten with “DBU” and the players such as Patrick Peterson, Chad Jones, LaRon Landry and Tyrann Mathieu who brought that moniker to life.
“He told me if LSU offered, he was going to shut it down,” Jeremy said of his son. “When they offered, he was ready to shut it down.”
Jeremy pleaded for patience, asking JaCoby to compare other schools showing interest to see if they could reach the same standard his son had established for the Tigers.
Recruiting is rarely without tumult and Stevens experienced his share.
It started with the September 2016 firing of Miles, whom Stevens had given his commitment. Then, there was the eventual departure of LSU General Manager Austin Thomas, a family friend who decided to work for USC.
When Stevens de-committed two months later, the nation’s top-ranked safety by 247Sports made official visits to Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.
Then, Orgeron was hired, defensive backs coach Corey Raymond had his contact extended and Thomas, a Nashville native who was considered a key figure in Stevens’ recruiting process, returned to LSU.
Stevens has been a Tiger ever since, though his career had a shaky start. The former five-star product and Mr. Football and Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee considered a transfer following his first LSU season when he played several different positions.
Stevens, who was behind veteran safeties Ed Paris and John Battle, split time in six games (getting one start) between safety and wide receiver, finishing with two catches for 32 yards.
“If I had done that (transferred), I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in now,” Stevens said. “I used to struggle with patience. I would jump the gun with everything and be very impulsive. Having this experience, I knew I needed to learn and mature.”
Stevens started in four of 11 games in 2018 and emerged late in the season as one of LSU’s top defenders. He registered a career-high 14 tackles with four for loss in the Tigers’ epic 74-72 seven-overtime setback at Texas A&M.
Prior to that, Stevens had 15 tackles all season.
“That was the game I kind of settled in and got enough confidence to actually play,” Stevens said. “Although we lost, it was something to build on. From there, I just trended upwards.”
Stevens concluded the season with six tackles and an interception in LSU’s 40-32 victory over eighth-ranked Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.
The momentum catapulted him into a junior campaign in 2019 when he nearly tripled the production of his sophomore season. He was second on the team in both tackles for loss (9) and sacks (5).
Stevens gained national acclaim with the No. 3 highlight on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays with an acrobatic, one-handed interception in a 36-13 road win over Mississippi State. He had a season-high 10 tackles in a key 23-20 league win over Auburn a week later and added seven tackles in the Tigers’ postseason run against Georgia in the SEC Championship game and then vs. Clemson in the national title game.
He faced a pivotal decision in January whether to bypass his final year of eligibility and leap into the NFL Draft or return as a senior to a school that he has loved since age four.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say it was difficult,” said Stevens, a projected high-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. “Going to the NFL is the dream of every kid playing football. When it’s literally at the doorstep it’s hard to turn down. I still wanted to be here because you don’t get these experiences back. I felt like it was a good decision for me in the long run.”
The return of Stevens gives the Tigers the versatile anchor in the secondary.
“He’s one of our best players,” Orgeron said of Stevens. “We’ll use him at safety, nickel, (and) rush him. The closer he is to the ball the more plays he makes.”
New defensive coordinator Bo Pelini shares Orgeron’s enthusiasm.
“I can’t even tell you how excited I am to have JaCoby Stevens in our system,” Pelini said in May during the Tiger Athletic Foundation’s virtual Coaches Caravan. “He can do so many things. The NFL is going to be licking their chops over this guy.”
Last season, Stevens was one of four LSU defensive players to start all 15 games. If he has his way in this coronavirus-shortened 2020 10-game SEC games only schedule, he’ll start all those, too.
“I told my sister (Janai) that I feel blessed because not a lot of guys can say they’re living their dream,” Stevens said. “That’s what I appreciate and that is living out a life-long dream of playing at LSU. I’m really in love with the place and the school.”
JACOBY STEVENS QUICK TAKES
When did you know football was your best sport? Sophomore year in high school.
What’s your junk food weakness? Hershey bars.
Favorite food or meal? Steak medium well.
What’s the hardest you’ve been hit and the hardest you’ve ever hit somebody? I was in eighth grade practicing with varsity team and I got hit pretty hard and was seeing stars after the hit.
My sophomore year in high school, we were scrimmaging, and a guy was running down the field and I hit him so hard that he flew into the fence that bordered the field.
Best non-LSU player you’ve faced? Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa.
Who was your favorite non-LSU coach when he was recruiting you? Auburn defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff.
What is one of your hidden talents? Cooking.
Name something you don’t know how to do no matter how hard you try? Sing.
What is your favorite play from the 2019 season and why? Big hit against Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers (LSU trailed 17-14 with 8:31 to go in second quarter). It kind of shook the momentum and kind of set the tone for the rest of the national championship (game).
Favorite all-time pro receiver? Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.
Favorite sports movie and why? nRemember the Titans. It really shows how football brings people together and brings different guys from different backgrounds together and makes it a true family.
Do you have a pregame ritual?n Dunking on the goal posts before I run into the locker room after warm-ups.
Do you have any superstitions? I listen to Public Service Announcement by Jay-Z going down the Tiger Walk or when we get out of the bus for a road game.
Name something you fear? Not being successful.
Favorite all-time athlete and why? My father Jeremy Stevens (a former standout high school basketball player and track athlete who was a high jumper at UL-Monroe.) Some of the stories I’ve heard that he’s done are ridiculous.
Best vacation you’ve ever taken? Disney World (where Stevens was participating in an AAU tournament). We shared an entire room with my extended family members who came. It was crazy, but we made it work.
What is your best sport besides football? Basketball.
If you could change one NCAA rule or on off-the field, what would it be? It would be cool for college football to let guys like Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr (Chase) be able to dance in the end zone. At the end of the day it’s entertainment.
Most famous person you’ve ever met? Snoop Dog.
Who’s the best trash talker on the team? Me or Ja’Marr Chase.
Who’s the most influential person in your life and why? My father. How he persevered. He takes care of our family. He always does the right thing and he always puts his family before him. He’s sacrificed a lot for me and my sister to be in the positions we’re in now.
Describe yourself in one word or a phrase? Competitive.
(This story and Q & A are in the Tiger Rag Magazine preseason football issue which is available now at the usual outlets)