Motivated

After a strong spring and summer, Jai Eugene, Sr. is looking for big things in the fall.

It takes only one trip down memory lane for Jai Eugene, Sr. to recall how quickly things changed in 2006 in a span of just a few hours.

 

Eugene, who was Scout.com’s No. 1-ranked cornerback prospect when he came out of Destrehan High School in 2006, was all set to sign with Michigan. The five-star prospect had committed to the Wolverines over LSU during an announcement at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Jan. 7.

 

At the time, Eugene thought that Ann Arbor was the place he wanted to spend the next four years of his life. A trip to visit the campus the following weekend all but solidified his decision and gave him the comfort level that he was looking for in choosing his future home away from home.

 

Then, a few weeks later, when Eugene celebrated with family and friends back at home for a special occasion, he had a revelation that would forever change his future.

 

“When I chose Michigan I was going to go there,” Eugene said. “I went back and forth with my decision, but when I took my visit the following weekend after I committed, I really felt like that was it for me. Then my little boy’s birthday party the Sunday before signing day set it off for me.”

 

Eugene’s oldest son Jai, Jr., who is now four years old, turned one back on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2006. That was a special moment for both father and son, and it made the elder Eugene realize that home truly is where the heart is.

 

“I called coach Miles at like midnight of my son’s birthday and told him I had to stay home and play for him,” said Eugene. “I couldn’t have left my child and only seen him a few times a year. I was close to choosing LSU anyway, but my son just pushed them over the top.” 

 

Though his son was only a year old when Eugene made that late night phone call to Les Miles, it certainly wasn’t the first instance where his newborn had a profound effect on his life.

 

“He helped me mature a lot and make better decisions than a lot of guys my age made,” said Eugene, who was only 17 years old at the time of his son’s birth. “I couldn’t go out a lot or do some things that I may have been able to get away with because I had that responsibility. When I was young, my dad really wasn’t around a lot so I wanted to make that commitment to my son and be there for him.”



Motivation has never been a problem for Jai Eugene, Sr.

Eugene signed his national letter-of-intent with the Tigers three days after his boy’s birthday, and graduated from Destrehan a little more than four months later. His first year with the Tigers was a redshirt year, where he was able to learn Bo Pelini’s defensive system.

 

As a redshirt freshman in 2007, Eugene played in 12 of LSU’s 14 games as the Tigers captured the BCS Championship. He saw action in five of the first six games – albeit mop-up duty or on special teams – as LSU had climbed to No. 1 in the country and headed into a showdown with Kentucky.

 

The Tigers were favored to defeat the Wildcats, and Eugene expected to fill his familiar role of playing on special teams and possibly getting some action when LSU was comfortably ahead. Or, so he thought.

 

LSU starting cornerback Chevis Jackson took a shot to the head that knocked him out of the game, which thrust Eugene into the game plan for the first time when the outcome was still in doubt. Those who remember that gloomy day in Lexington where the Tigers fell to the Wildcats 43-37 in three overtime periods will probably recall the moment when Eugene was inserted into the lineup as easily as he does.

 

“I’ll never forget that day, never,” said Eugene, grinning from ear to ear as he acknowledged how confused he was from the first snap. “I was so surprised and couldn’t believe that I was in. Then the play that they called had a tight end that was offset, so I was asking myself which receiver do I get? Do I go over or do I stay? I definitely had some butterflies on that first play.”

 

Tiger fans had expected big things out of Eugene after the lofty recruiting ranking that he received, and some questioned how the country’s top ranked cornerback on the prep level could look like a fish out of water when his number was called. However, many of those same fans probably were unaware of just how inexperienced he was as a cornerback when he signed with the Tigers.

 

Eugene said he played corner in only one game as a freshman at Destrehan High School, and that was only because the Wildcats were facing a pass-happy Evangel team in the state playoffs that was led by quarterback John David Booty, who eventually signed with USC.

 

In fact, the only significant time Eugene saw in the secondary at Destrehan was when he played safety a few games as a sophomore. From then on, his time was spent at quarterback – outside of a few snaps in the secondary in spot situations.

 

Eugene used the Kentucky game as a learning experience when he headed into the 2008 season as one of LSU’s projected starters at cornerback, along with Chris Hawkins. He said that he worked hard during the spring and summer before last season because he knew that another cornerback – Patrick Peterson, who was also ranked No. 1 in the country coming out of high school – was going to pose a stiff challenge for one of the starting jobs.

 

“We all knew that Pat was going to be one of the best corners to ever come here, so I knew I had competition,” Eugene said. “I knew they had some times when they wanted him to play and it was kind of like we both had a certain amount of plays they wanted us to play. I knew once he came around things were going to be different and there would be a lot of competition for the job.”

 

Eugene fended the talented true freshman off for the first nine games of the season before Peterson moved into the starting lineup against Troy, which relegated Eugene to backup duty once again.

 

“The thing I had to do was keep my focus and continue to work hard because I knew at the end of the day – two or three years down the line – Pat was going to be phenomenal,” said Eugene, who broke up only three passes last season. “I knew the day was going to come where he would be a starter, then once he came along at the end of the season and playing time started decreasing I started asking myself what do I do? It got a little frustrating at times, but I knew I couldn’t give up because I’m not a quitter.”

 

Eugene admits that the early part of the spring was tough on him. It was so tough at times that he even thought of making a fresh start somewhere else.

 

“I definitely did,” he said when asked if the thought of transferring entered his mind. “If you watch the games, I didn’t give up a lot of big plays. I didn’t make a lot of plays, but I felt like I did my part on defense and did what I had to do. I wondered what the reason was for the lack of playing time, but after thinking about it long and hard I just accepted the fact that God has a plan for me and I had to keep working hard.”

 


Eugene has overcome plenty of roadblocks on the path to LSU

Part of LSU’s plan was bringing in new defensive backs coach Ron Cooper, who immediately met with Eugene to squash any thought of transferring that he may have had.

 

“I knew if I wanted to start playing I had to tweak some things,” said Eugene. “Me and coach Coop sat down and talked and he said that he saw some good things in me. He said I looked pretty good and he reiterated the fact that he was going to play the best guys, so just to come out and work hard.”

 

Eugene set out to make several changes during the spring and summer to prepare him for his upcoming junior season. In fact, 2009 has brought a lot of change to his life as Eugene had his second son – Jace – at the beginning of the summer.

 

After bulking his 5-foot-11 frame up to 200 pounds for the ’08 season, Eugene slimmed down to the 181 pounds he reported at for fall camp. He said that he is quicker and faster than ever, and it’s obviously benefited him as he has run with the first team at cornerback – opposite of Peterson – for a good portion of fall camp, where he is locked in a battle with Hawkins for the left corner spot.

 

Eugene says that he has a better grasp of playing the position than ever before, and he used last season as motivation to get to the point he’s at with only 12 days to go until the season opener.

 

“I dropped the weight and trained extra hard,” he said. “I ran a lot more and really paid attention to all of the little things that would affect me.

 

“Now, coach Miles and coach Cooper have both said that they see me playing with a lot more confidence than before. I’m able to identify routes more and read offenses and personnel quicker than I used to. It’s been a lot of work, but it seems that it’s all starting to come together.”


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