AT 6'3", 292 POUNDS, defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois rarely is perceived as being small—except when he steps into a shot put circle. "Most of the other dudes figure I can't throw it as far as them," says Jean-Francois, a junior. "In the [circle], I prove them wrong." In fact, he was second in the event at the Penn Relays in April—surprising opponents much as he did Tennessee and Ohio State in the final two games of LSU's run to the 2007 national title. After missing the regular season while serving a one-year suspension imposed by the dean of students, Jean-Francois was reinstated in time to start in the SEC and the BCS title games. His performance in the latter, a 38--24 win over the Buckeyes, included a momentum-swinging blocked field goal, six tackles and half a sack; he was named the game's most outstanding defensive player.
Jean-Francois declines to discuss the specifics of his suspension (the official reason was "academic dishonesty"), saying only that "it made me become a better person." Though forbidden from playing in games, he was allowed to practice with the scout team, after which he headed to the student recreation center to lift weights and do cardio work. "If I was in the football building, I would be thinking about [the suspension]," he says. "I wanted to be around regular students."
When he finally got on the field, Jean-Francois showed that he had the makings of a dominant player—good news for LSU, which is counting on him to fill the void left by Glenn Dorsey, the Outland Trophy winner and fifth pick in the NFL draft in April. Senior Charles Alexander, who missed most of '07 with a torn right ACL, is back at the other tackle, and both starting ends, seniors Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman, return as well. "Our defensive line will be better than last year's," assures Jean-Francois. It has to be, because the Tigers may need their defense to carry them early.
Following the departure of top quarterbacks Matt Flynn, a seventh-round pick of the Packers, and Ryan Perrilloux, who was dismissed in May following multiple violations of team rules, LSU will be breaking in sophomore Andrew Hatch (1 for 2 passing last year after transferring from Harvard) or redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee. And the Tigers' first opponent? It's three-time Division I-AA national champion Appalachian State, which stunned Michigan in the first week of last season.