LSU QB Jefferson goes from outcast to center stage
He watched the game on a TV in the locker room.
“It was very difficult,” Jefferson said. “I was cheering them on, supporting them.”
When the Tigers practiced during that first month of the season, Jefferson often watched from a balcony overlooking the practice facility. He was in limbo – not completely off the team, but not on it.
That was his position after being charged with a felony, second-degree battery, stemming from a Baton Rouge bar brawl in August. Witnesses said he kicked a man in the face, a charge Jefferson denied. He had 49 pairs of sneakers confiscated by police and checked for DNA evidence.
All of Louisiana had an opinion on Jefferson – and many of them were not kind. A guy who never had been in trouble growing up in a middle-class family in St. Rose, La., found his character being assailed from all sides.
After being suspended indefinitely by coach Les Miles, Jefferson’s college career hung in the balance. He faced the possibility he’d never put on an LSU uniform again. He didn’t practice or play, but he couldn’t just walk away.
Monday night, his journey from program outcast to centerpiece in the BCS national championship game will be complete.
It has been a season of extreme highs and lows for Jefferson. He embarked on the road back Sept. 28, when a grand jury reduced the charge against Jefferson to simple battery, a misdemeanor. (Jefferson’s attorney filed a motion for dismissal of the charges, claiming that his client’s only action in a wild melee that injured four people was to pull some of his teammates away from the fracas.) Miles reinstated him to the team the same day, and he played four days later against Kentucky.
When Jefferson ran onto the field midway through the first quarter, the boos in Tiger Stadium were audible. When he scored on a quarterback sneak, the cheers were louder.
LSU fans were conflicted. Had Jefferson been punished enough? Should he regain the starting role he won with a great spring practice? Would his return hinder the chemistry that had been building with backup Jarrett Lee, who played well in leading the Tigers to a 4-0 start against quality competition?
Three months later, the vast majority of those conflicted feelings have changed. Jefferson has made the most of his second chance – not just getting back into the team’s good graces, but getting back into the starting lineup and helping lead the Tigers to an undefeated season.
“A difficult situation that he was in certainly provided him with an experience that’s helped him want leadership,” Miles said. “I see him really preparing to play his best football.”
When Lee threw two potentially costly interceptions against Alabama on Nov. 5, it was time for Miles to give the job of quarterbacking his team back to Jefferson. Lee had been a good soldier who had played the best ball of his career up to that point, but his penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team returned at the wrong time.
So Jefferson took over in-game against the Crimson Tide. He moved the LSU offense just enough – mostly with his legs – to kick three field goals and win the showdown game of 2011. He withstood a number of high-impact collisions with Alabama’s ferocious defenders without flinching.
“I got after him a couple times,” Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “He got right back up. He’s a very tough player.”
Said Tide nose tackle Josh Chapman: “He’s a hard-nosed guy. We smoked him a couple times, but you’ve got to keep smoking him. We’ve got to try to hit him until it affects him.”
Nobody has been able to adversely affect Jefferson since his return to the starting lineup, although he had a rocky opening quarter against Georgia in the SEC championship game. He has thrown a touchdown pass in every game he has started, with just one interception.
Jefferson’s statistics are solid but unspectacular: 684 yards passing and 248 yards rushing in nine games. But Jefferson, a 6-foot-5, 223-pounder, has had a knack for making enough big plays to elevate LSU’s offense to a higher level than when he was sharing the job with Lee. The Tigers have scored at least 41 points in each of Jefferson’s starts.
Winning and moving the ball have ended any qualms about who should be LSU’s starting quarterback. It’s no longer a talk-show topic or message-board fodder, and it’s certainly a non-issue in the locker room.
“You want the 11 best guys on the field,” LSU quarterback coach Steve Kragthorpe said. “If you’re the quarterback and your best friend is the left tackle but he just isn’t very good, you really don’t want him on the field.
“This isn’t a happiness camp. We can go sing ‘Kumbaya’ after the game, but let’s first try to win the game. The guy that can perform is the guy they want in the game.”
The guy they want at LSU is the guy who wasn’t there in September. The guy they have says he’s more grounded today than he was then.
“I feel like I’m more prepared because of what I went through before the season,” Jefferson said. “I had a tremendous amount of adversity, more than can be compared to what will happen – on the field as far as throwing a pick or fumbling the ball.
“It’s quite easy for me to overcome a situation like that after being through a situation like I’ve been through.”
The legal process is not over for Jefferson, but the football exile of September is long behind him. The journey from outcast to centerpiece culminates Monday night.
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