The arrival of JaCoby Stevens: How LSU junior safety found his position — and patience

4 months ago The Advocate 0

Dionne Stevens woke up last Sunday morning to the sound of a notification. She looked at her phone. Her son, LSU junior safety JaCoby Stevens, had tagged her in a social media post. It recognized his one-handed interception the day before as one of the best plays in the country.

In the second quarter against Mississippi State, Stevens had dropped into zone coverage. He had heard criticism of his coverage ability earlier this year. It annoyed him. As the pass spun through the air, Stevens reached his right hand behind his head, snatching the football. The interception, his second this season, positioned LSU for a touchdown.

The pick landed at No. 3 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. Chatter spread throughout Stevens’ family, messages congratulating him on one of the most complete games of his career. When Stevens saw his family Sunday, he felt giddy. 

“You can almost hear him grin,” Stevens’ mother said.

Stevens’ performance against Mississippi State — eight tackles, one sack and the interception — signaled his arrival. He spent about half his career at LSU searching for his role, a former five-star recruit stuck in position-less limbo, but this season, Stevens has found his place.

Approaching LSU’s game Saturday against No. 9 Auburn, Stevens ranks near the top of LSU’s defense in tackles (38), sacks (two), passes defended (six) and interceptions. Stevens once considered transferring during his freshman year, but he now finds himself in the position he has always wanted: a reliable piece of LSU’s defense as it pursues a championship.

“I’m playing free,” Stevens said. “I finally found my role on this team.”

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Stevens enrolled early in 2017 as the highest-rated prospect in LSU’s signing class, the only five-star recruit, according to 247Sports, in a group that included 14 other eventual starters. The Tigers wanted Stevens, but they didn’t know where to put him. They had depth at safety and few playmakers on offense.

“He was not going to be playing safety right away,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “He had some stuff he had to improve on, but I wanted him to play.” 

One week early in his freshman season, Stevens moved from wide receiver to tight end. Then, as he began to grasp the offensive playbook, he said the coaching staff put him at safety because of an injury. He said he moved again, to linebacker, before he asked Orgeron to play safety full-time. He joked that the coaches had passed him around.

“It was them trying to get me on the field,” Stevens said, “but it was a lot.” 

LSU never questioned Stevens’ athleticism or work ethic. Those qualities had stood out from the day he was born. As a nurse at the hospital tried to clean him, Stevens knocked a tool out of the nurse’s hand. Later, when Stevens was an infant, his mother noticed his knuckles gripping the sides of his bassinet. Stevens was trying to pull himself out of it.

Growing up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Stevens raced his sister, Janai, up a hill behind their house. They turned life into a series of competitions.

“There was no prize,” said Stevens’ sister, who’s four years younger. “Whoever got there first won the game. That’s how we’ve always been.”

In high school, Stevens developed early into a sought-after recruit. His first scholarship offer came his freshman season. Stevens’ father, Jeremy, built him boxes for jump training. They went to the high school track on the weekends, and Stevens climbed over a locked fence. His father handed him the boxes. Then his father climbed over, and they worked out together. When they finished, they handed the boxes back over the fence and drove home.

Stevens also played basketball until his junior year. He once attempted a dunk and missed, caught the ball as it bounced off the backboard and dropped it through the net — all while holding onto the rim. The referee didn’t count the basket.

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At LSU, Stevens power-cleaned alongside offensive linemen. He started at wide receiver against Troy his freshman year, but he didn’t like the position. Two weeks later, he appeared at safety. Stevens wanted to contribute, but he needed to improve. Frustration leaked out. He vented in Orgeron’s office. He felt he had wasted energy. He discussed transferring with his parents, but they encouraged him to listen, observe and communicate.

“Whenever it’s time,” Stevens’ father told him, “they’re going to let you know when you’re ready.” 

Stevens’ freshman year tested his patience, something he later realized he had struggled with his entire life. Sometimes in high school, if he was too hungry to wait for dinner with his family, he grabbed a Double Whopper with bacon from BurgerKing because the food came faster.

Recruiting forced patience, too. He wanted to commit as soon as possible, ending the process. His parents reminded him to wait, visit multiple schools and ask questions beyond football. Stevens’ father described it as “pulling teeth.” After LSU offered Stevens a scholarship, his parents made him wait about two months to commit.

“By them doing that and pulling me back,” Stevens said, “I did choose the right school.”

Stevens emerged late in his sophomore year. He began to relax when he made a sack against Georgia. He settled into the defense playing near the line of scrimmage. He started the final four games. And he has started every game this season.

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Two days after beating Mississippi State, Stevens walked toward LSU’s weight room when he received a text message. It told him the Southeastern Conference had recognized him as co-Defensive Player of the Week, an honor he shared with Texas A&M linebacker Buddy Johnson. He told his parents. They envisioned his grin.

“I know I’m sharing with somebody else,” Stevens said later, “but to get there and have the conference recognize my performance, it feels good.”

Halfway into his junior year, Stevens has found his role at LSU, meeting the expectations that came with his five-star status in high school. He now believes God tested him the first half of his career, making him learn patience and wait his turn.

“I’m glad I had that experience,” Stevens said, “because it’s something I can use to give advice to people who are going to go through my same situation.” 

A couple weeks ago, Stevens texted his sister and told her how special it has felt to run through Tiger Stadium this year. He wanted to play at LSU throughout his childhood, insisting his parents stop for pictures with Mike the Tiger when they visited family in Louisiana. 

“A lot of people can’t say they’re living their dream,” Stevens said. “The fact that I’m living mine, it’s emotional, man.”

But Stevens doesn’t feel satisfied. He wants to play more instinctive. He knows he can’t get complacent. It took two years to find his role, but it can disappear in an instant. When he watched film of his performance against Mississippi State, he noticed a missed tackle and a completed pass he thought he could have knocked away.

Inside LSU’s practice facility Monday evening, Stevens grinned. He enjoyed and appreciated his success, but those two mistakes bothered him. 

“That’s one thing about me,” Stevens said. “I don’t think I’ve ever arrived.”