Fresh legs, perspective inspire Jean-Francois

Headed into the 2007 season, LSU's defensive line was considered a strongpoint.

In addition to NFL-caliber starters, there was NFL-potential depth. But then, Charles Alexander went down, Glenn Dorsey nearly went down for good thanks to an illegal chop block in the Tigers game against Auburn.

Slowly but surely, attrition was turning a once dominant defense into a group of walking wounded that had gone from the nation's top-rated group to one being raked over the coals for its inability to stop other teams.

Against Arkansas, the role injuries played in determining LSU's football fortune was evident. Something would have to change from that week to the next if the Tigers were going to rebound to win the SEC Championship Game against Tennessee, and the change proved to be Ricky Jean-Francois.

Jean-Francois was the defensive line's earliest casualty this season, lost after the 2006 game against Arkansas for academic dishonesty. He missed out on the Sugar Bowl beating of Notre Dame, and his one-year calendar suspension forced him to miss the entire 2007 regular season.

"My coaches told me to keep my head up from day one," Jean-Francois said. "I felt down and I felt like I wanted to leave school and everything. But all my coaches told me at the end, something is going to come through for you. I just leaned on my teammates. My teammates told me ‘Anything you need, I'll help you out.' And at that point it just made me appreciate everything in life, and I took school to the point that I wanted to graduate this next semester, and it actually made me appreciate everything in life now.

"It made me appreciate school. It made me appreciate my mom, my dad, what they did for me. Made me appreciate Coach (Les) Miles, Matt (Flynn), all my team members, even trainers to equipment managers. Made me appreciate everybody around me, because I seen when I was down, they helped me out to get me back up. Once I lifted my head up, I felt like I was on top of the world to go out and play in the national championship game. It was a great thing."

After running with the scout team for the entire regular season, Jean-Francois made his presence known in the Georgia Dome against the Volunteers. In the Superdome last Monday night, he basically screamed he was back loud enough for the 79,651 in attendance to hear with six total tackles, a half of a sack, a quarterback hurry, and a blocked field goal.

"We knew that was going to be our X-factor," Dorsey said of Jean-Francois. "Ricky is an unbelievable guy. He's a heck of a player. He's one of the smartest guys on the team. He can move. I knew when Ricky-Jean came back he was going to be an important player, and he helped us out big time tonight."

With momentum finally edging fully toward LSU, the Buckeyes began moving the ball easily on their fourth possession of the night until a personal foul penalty helped force a 38-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Pretorious. He had previously hit a 25-yard field goal to give Ohio State a 10-0 advantage. This time, Pretorious' kick was batted backwards by Jean-Francois, and the Tigers would soon have their first lead of the night.

"On the field goal, coach told us to basically come out in the regular defense because he probably thought they was going to fake it," Jean-Francois said. "Coach told me to back up off the ball a little bit because their line wasn't trying to put their hands out or nothing, they were using their shoulders. So I backed up and just came off quick as possible trying to time the ball. When I got back there and I saw my hand, I was like, ‘Please, let this block this ball.' When I finally blocked it, I was shocked.

" It changed the momentum of the game, because at that point when they thought they were going to kick a field goal, they probably could have did it multiple times during the game. But once I blocked the field goal, it's like it just took them out of strategy. And any fourth down they probably just had to go for it."

Instead of having to recover from an injury this year, Jean-Francois had to battle back from a blow that cut much deeper and hurt even more. He let people down – his family, his teammates, himself – and it was of his own doing. But his resolve to correct his mistakes has been undeniable and is more important than his performance in the BCS National Championship Game, necessary for LSU's victory though it was. In addition to knowing what to do on the field, he realizes how important his actions off the field are as well.

In leaving his home state of Florida to come to LSU, Jean-Francois left most of what he knew behind. The decision to do so was one he was not going to allow anyone to dissuade him from though.

"And I wasn't taking no for an answer," Jean-Francois said. "I'm a stubborn person, too. But I wanted to go to LSU from day one. We got one of the best football programs; one of the best track programs. And things did change like going to Baton Rouge and leaving. You leave the fast life, you go the slow life. Once that happened, it made me start thinking, like what's around me. I have football, I have friends and people like family to me. I have education. They drug it in my head that education was a good key. Coming from LSU, get a degree, you have a great job further down the line."

And perhaps getting Jean-Francois to realize that football was a privilege, that what he did in the classroom matters just as much, if not more, is the best coaching he'll ever receive.

There's something to be said for the fresh legs he brought into the mix for the Tigers at the tail end of the season, but the more important thing certainly was his new perspective.

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