Football in the United States moves at a breakneck pace. College recruiters have to sift through thousands of prospects across the country, traveling from high school bleacher to high school bleacher, making snap judgments on 15-year-olds with a math test to study for. College coaches have to determine their rosters based on spring games and a couple of dozen practices. NFL careers hinge on even smaller samples of preseason play and camp drills. An injury at the wrong time can derail the most promising recruits.
The Jeffersons are an LSU family. Justin’s oldest brother Jordan played quarterback from 2008-11. Rickey Jefferson played defensive back from 2013-16. The family grew close to Les Miles and the entire LSU staff. Justin would sleep over at the Miles house as a kid. During his brothers’ games, Justin would run around, getting into trouble. The ties between LSU and the Jefferson family ran deep, but that didn’t help Justin much in high school.
Justin Jefferson didn’t even crack the varsity team at Destrehan High School until his junior year. His freshman year, he was a 5’7″ hopeful made out of sticks. He injured his elbow during a soccer game that year, which resulted in an X-ray exam. His parents recalled the doctor telling them, “Man, he’s about to sprout up.”
But that didn’t help him during the early part of high school. Even with the Jefferson name, most recruiters looked past a skinny kid that couldn’t crack varsity. His brothers, who had played with Justin since they were kids throwing a ball around on an empty lot next door, knew what Justin had. He was a hidden gem, an NFL superstar that college recruiters wouldn’t give a second look to.
For a lot of careers, things might end there. Who knows how many NFL superstars fell through the cracks of the college recruiting process? How many super-athletes weren’t super-athletes when Rivals.com rated them as prospects? Justin Jefferson hit his growth spurt before his junior year and finally made the varsity team. But by then, he was already crossed off of too many lists. There isn’t time for college recruiters to circle back and check on small JV kids.
But Justin excelled every chance he got. His junior year, he had shot up to 6’1″ but still weighed 155 lbs. His knees knotted up, making him look like a gangly, uncoordinated mess. Destrehan head coach Devin Robicheaux relegated him to backside slants while the bigger kids worked the front side. But Justin’s brother had been a college quarterback with some other NFL superstars-to-be from LSU. He reassured Justin, “Remember, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham did this. Put that in your game.”
Jefferson’s breakout came his senior year. His knees stopped knotting, he filled out a little more — but still couldn’t cross 180 — and dominated. But by then, it was too late. Every school had looked past him except one: the one that knew him as a child. LSU brass and the Miles family stuck by Justin Jefferson throughout all of this, and there was no doubt he would follow his brothers to LSU so long as he was eligible.
The 2016 season did not go as well for Les Miles as it did for Justin Jefferson, however. After a controversial September loss to Auburn, Miles and his staff were ousted. In came Ed Orgeron, a D-line assistant who had only been in the program for a year and change. He got the head coaching job after a 5-2 interim record and had to decide what to do with LSU’s final available scholarship.
Meanwhile, Jefferson was struggling to earn his eligibility. One of his core English classes was giving him trouble, and he had to spend extra time to earn the credit. He even missed National Signing Day as an academically ineligible prospect. He had to earn his eligibility before LSU got too deep into training camp, and it was down to the wire.
Ed Orgeron wasn’t as personally familiar with the Jeffersons as Les Miles was. Nobody was making him offer a scholarship to a two-star recruit with only one other offer from Nicholls State in the Southland Conference. Nothing was stopping Orgeron from handing that scholarship to someone that wasn’t making him wait for academic eligibility. But Orgeron extended the scholarship anyways, and Jefferson made it just in time to report to camp three days late.
This juncture would turn out to be critical to the fates of the LSU Tigers, Minnesota Vikings, Ed Orgeron, Kirk Cousins, Rick Spielman, even Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals. Jefferson played a crucial role in the Tigers’ 2019 championship season and Joe Burrow‘s No. 1-overall selection. You could even argue the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers would have ended up with different quarterbacks had Jefferson not passed a high school English class in the summer of 2017.
If Jefferson didn’t pass that class, he’d have likely gone through junior college. By the time he was DI eligible, LSU would have given his scholarship to someone else. LSU was the only college to offer him. Everyone else had either looked past Jefferson as an undersized receiver, missed him entirely since he didn’t populate eligible prospect lists, or just declined to bother with a kid that was pre-destined to play for Louisiana State.
A number of other things could have gone wrong to derail Justin Jefferson’s path to the NFL. If Jordan and/or Rickey chose a school other than LSU, that relationship may not have been as strong. If Les Miles had been fired after the 2015 season, Ed Orgeron may not have taken over. If Miles were fired at the end of the 2016 season, Orgeron may not have gotten the chance to prove himself as interim coach. If someone else took over, who knows if they would have honored the Miles staff’s familiarity with the Jeffersons.
If Jefferson went to JuCo, he probably wouldn’t have had the elite draft stock that landed him in the first round. Even if he came back to Division I football, would LSU have had the opening for him? If LSU didn’t honor Les Miles’ promise to the Jeffersons, would the zero-offer two-star recruit have played at all? And if the JuCo longshot version of Jefferson had the rookie training camp that Jefferson had, would an NFL team have rostered him?
Justin Jefferson was surrounded by believers for the majority of his career. His parents and brothers supported him immensely through his childhood. Devin Robicheaux knew better than to bet against a Jefferson. Jerry Sullivan’s keen eye for talent picked Justin Jefferson out of the crowd. Come 2018, Justin Jefferson produced the tape that caught Rick Spielman’s eye in the 2020 draft. As a fully fleshed-out athlete dominating the best competition in college football, Jefferson could no longer be doubted. Even less so after his dynamic rookie season. But before anyone knew how good Justin Jefferson was, his support system ensured that we all found out eventually.