LSU’s promising 2011 season reached a new crossroads Wednesday evening when Tigers coach Les Miles reinstated senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson after a Baton Rouge grand jury came back with a decision to reduce charges against him from a second-degree felony to misdemeanor simple battery for his involvement in a fight outside an campus-area bar on Aug. 19.
Jefferson’s charges were reduced and those levied against sophomore linebacker Josh Johns for the same incident were dismissed. Both were arrested Aug. 26 and charged with second-degree felony battery after a brawl that sent four men to area hospitals.
One of the victims suffered two cracked vertebrae and a second, Andrew Lowery, accused Jefferson of kicking him in the head, which he has claimed rendered him unconscious.
The grand jury deliberated for several hours Wednesday after Jefferson testified on his own behalf. Earlier in the day, LSU players Evan Washington, Lavar Edwards and Derrick Bryant testified as well.
The grand jury’s decision was announced shortly before 6 p.m. when Miles was scheduled to meet with the media for a regularly scheduled session.
That session was scratched and Miles instead went straight to his weekly radio call-in show at TJ Ribs. Shortly after he arrived, Miles announced that the two players had been reinstated and would return to practice Thursday.
Afterward Miles spoke to a throng of reporters, with Jefferson’s status dominating the questions.
“He wants very much to make this a learning … a lesson to all – for him (and) the team,” Miles said. “I think he’s really looking forward to getting back with his friends and adding his skills to our team and obviously winning a championship.”
Without Jefferson, the starting QB for the final two games of 2008 and all but one game in 2009 and 2010, the Tigers are off to a 4-0 start and have climbed to a No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
Fifth-year senior Jarrett Lee took over as the starter the day Jefferson was arrested and suspended, and has been very effective with 624 passing yards and six touchdown passes, with only one interception.
While Jefferson is cleared to come back to practice, Miles made it clear that Lee will remain the starter and Jefferson comes back as the immediate backup.
"I told (Jefferson) today that (Lee) will be our starter going forward,” Miles said during his radio show.
Later with the media, Miles said “Right now Jarrett Lee is our starting quarterback and what we would want to do is obviously add to that skill set.”
LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva issued a statement during Miles’ radio show that read: "We certainly don't condone participation in the incident, but the legal system has determined that their actions did not rise to the level originally charged, and their punishment to date related to football has already been considerable. They will rejoin the team and begin practice immediately."
Jefferson hasn’t practiced for nearly five weeks, but will apparently be in uniform Saturday when the Tigers host Kentucky at 11:21 a.m.
Although Jefferson could ostensibly redshirt and sit out the rest of the season and return as a fifth-year senior in 2012, Miles said “It’s not out of the question. I don’t see Jordan Jefferson giving great thought to that at this point.”
So, assuming he does play this season, how soon could Jefferson make his 2011 debut? Pretty quickly.
“I can’t imagine that he’ll be ready to play this Saturday, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Miles said.
“If he continues to do the things that he’s always done, then he would get onto the field. I don’t think there’s any question there.”
Miles said there was no hesitation to bring Jefferson back.
Nor does it sound like there was any thought to installing Jefferson as the starter.
“Any time that you put self in a position where your future is left to the will and whim of a crowd of people that would not necessarily benefit you, you have to understand where you stand,” Miles said. “Hopefully our guys will understand that much more beyond this event.”
The addition of Jefferson could potentially add a different and useful wrinkle to an LSU offense that is generating 350 yards and 38.8 points a game.
A much better runner than Lee, Jefferson could be utilized in situations when a dual threat would benefit the Tigers or in a handful of series each half – much like Lee was as the backup last season.
“There will be an opportunity just like a year ago when Lee played in every game for Jordan Jefferson to play in every game as well,” Miles said.
“I think that’s an opportunity to increase our productivity on offense.”
Another issue to weigh is how Jefferson’s return could affect the level of team chemistry that has formed with Lee as the quarterback and a clear-cut team leader.
The LSU players voted Lee a team captain shortly after Jefferson’s suspension and he has seemed to embrace that role, becoming more vocal on and off the field.
Miles believes Lee’s regenerated confidence this season makes him better equipped to handle whatever competition results from Jefferson’s return. Lee has been Jefferson’s backup the last two seasons – serving that role much better in 2010 with 573 yards and two TD passes and playing key roles in SEC victories against Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.
“He is now handling it from in front,” Miles said. “He’s very equipped to handle that position. I don’t think there’s any question that he knows how to compete.”
There also doesn’t seem to be any question that the rest of the Tigers will welcome Jefferson back. Miles also made a passionate plea to the LSU fans to embrace the quarterback who has guided LSU to 20 victories in 27 career starts.
“I don’t think there’s any question that our guys are looking forward to the return of Jordan Jefferson,” Miles said. “Teammate, friend, skill set – he adds to our team.
“I would only think that somebody that has gone through the issues that Jordan Jefferson has gone through and maintained the posture that he has and then now to return, I would hope that everybody would embrace him and know that he would and to his team and know that frankly there are a bunch of teammates looking forward to his return.”
Moving forward legally, Jefferson still faces some hurdles – although much more navigable than had the felony charge stuck.
As a first-time offender, Jefferson isn’t likely to face a jury trial for the misdemeanor charge, which could also still be dismissed by East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III.
First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns told media after the grand jury’s decision was read that a simple battery conviction could carry a penalty of up to six months in jail and $500 in fines. Jail time can also be suspended.
Jefferson’s attorney Lewis Unglesby quickly shot down any talk of penalties, though, again proclaiming the quarterback’s innocence.
“I don’t think Jordan should have been indicted,” Unglesby said after the decision was handed down. “I think they’re wrong. Jordan will never be convicted.”
Johns’ attorney followed a similar refrain, saying “We’re very pleased. We never doubted it was a case of misidentification. It’s over for Josh.”
As a junior, Jefferson passed for 1,411 yards and seven TDs and rushed for an LSU quarterback single-season record 450 yards. His seven touchdowns on the ground were also a school record for a QB.
A former star at Destrehan, Jefferson entered his final season with 3,996 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes.