In 2006 LSU and head coach Les Miles had an impressive signing sheet, a group headlined by in-state names on offense like five-star Keiland Williams and four-star Charles Scott.
On the defensive side, Elton’s Al Woods – a five-star and the nation’s No. 2 ranked tackle – gave Tiger fans the news they were waiting on when he pledged to LSU just before Christmas. A month later, on a January night just shy of signing day, Miles got a phone call from another in-state five-star prospect: Destrehan’s Jai Eugene.
After committing to Michigan at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl earlier that month, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Eugene - ranked as the No. 1 cornerback in the country – was prepared to keep his services at home.
“I hated to leave my (newborn) son, and after thinking everything over it just hit me,” said Eugene after the switch came in 2006. “LSU has everything I want. I can get a good education, play for championships and be close to my family. I can’t ask for much more than that.”
Eugene would go on to win a national title, but the playing time didn’t follow the pattern of a typical top-ranked prospect. He redshirted his first year in Baton Rouge and then played as one of the two reserves in the secondary during the BCS title season in 2007.
In the wake of their championship celebration LSU signed Patrick Peterson, a south Florida standout that was considered by those near and far as the best cornerback in the country. As the Tigers worked in their new signing day prize, Eugene would see the most action of his career – nine starts in 13 games at right corner.
The final four games, however, belonged to the rookie.
By Eugene's junior season Peterson’s arrival had done enough to force him back to spot duty, seeing the St. Rose native appear in every game of the 2009 year but record only two starts.
To add to the difficulty of the terrain on Eugene’s road back to the field, sophomore Morris Claiborne – who flew under the radar through his high school recruitment only to end up in the select bunch of freshmen to avoid a redshirt – had used a strong spring to lock up a starting spot opposite Peterson.
Headed into his fifth and final year with the program, Eugene wasn’t ready to play second (or third) fiddle at cornerback – at least not if there was somewhere else he could serve the Tigers on the field.
In the move that marked his final stand, Eugene matched the transition made by Brandon Taylor, the team’s lone starting safety.
A cornerback during his first year with the program, Taylor was asked by the defensive coaching staff to consider a move to safety, a spot where he not only would earn a starting job but also serve as one of the team’s leaders in the secondary.
Taylor accepted, and by season’s end the sophomore had started double-digit games and recorded more than 40 tackles – up from the four stops that he made at cornerback during action in 13 games as a true freshman.
Despite once being tabbed as the top prep corner in the country, Eugene was ready to make the same switch.
“Time is ticking,” Eugene said. “It’s that last opportunity to prove myself as a football player here at LSU. I’m trying to go in every day to practice and maximize my opportunity.”
While Miles hasn’t named Eugene the starter opposite Taylor, the senior has moved in and out of reps with the first team throughout fall camp.
“I look at it as trying to get better,” he said. “I don’t even get surprised with the rotation or playing time. Being able to play both corner and safety, I am much more aware of the scheme (defensive coordinator) Chavis has for us. It’s made me better as a football player. I’m getting comfortable with making sure our communications are correct.”
“I really like it at safety, especially with Brandon, Pat and Mo being around.”
One other name is also hanging around, and given Eugene’s path, it comes as no surprise that the final teammate he’ll fend off for playing time was also tabbed as the nation’s top high school player at his position.
Craig Loston, a five-star safety that signed on with LSU out of the Lone Star State as a headliner in the talent-rich 2009 class, experienced the same high school to freshman fate as Eugene: No. 1 ranking to a redshirt.
Though he saw special teams action early in the season, Loston was granted a medical redshirt due to a wrist injury that kept him out of weekly workouts for most of the year.
“I wasn’t able to lift (weights) at all,” Loston said. “It was around December or January when I finally felt healthy. I feel like now I’m where I left off at, so I have to work hard to get to where I should be. I’m still trying to get there.”
Loston has lined up in preseason camp as the strong safety in the dime and free safety in base packages, and with the absence of Karnell Hatcher (knee) the redshirt freshman and Eugene have moved out front as the two names left in the race to join Taylor on the field.
After a strong showing in the spring game, Loston kicked off camp with a handful of stops in the opening scrimmage of the fall. A week later he had drawn big praise from Miles once more, this time for his team-high 6.5 tackles, sack and interception in the team’s second scrimmage.
“We are fighting to start for the North Carolina game,” Loston said. “Whoever gets the spot, then the other one will be behind them and ready to go. I’ve started getting more reps with the ones to get at game pace … I’m still learning and catching on. That’s where I am at right now.”
While he hasn’t turned out the same numbers in the team’s three scrimmages this fall, the veteran Eugene remains confident that he can bring the defense reliable play beginning with game one in Atlanta.
“I feel like my knowledge of the defense combined with my ability should help keep me out on the field a good bit,” he said. “Craig is a great player, but he’s also still coming along and learning.
“This being my last season, I just want to help the team win, and right now I think I’m in a good position to do that. Being at safety we blitz and play zone, play high and play the free. With coach Chavis, the free safety is put into position to make plays. That’s something I’m excited about.”