Penn State CB Lucas finding 'swagger'

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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Jordan Lucas' father and friends huddled around the basement television and leaned forward as if they were drawn to a warming campfire.

One man pointed at the No. 9 on TV, cackling while the Penn State sophomore walked to the sideline. "Oh God," a Corona-sipping man said to Lucas' father, Vincent, pointing and laughing away like old friends are wont to do. "There goes that Lucas swagger! Look -- he's walking with that bounce you walk with!"

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Jordan Lucas has emerged as a leader in the Penn State secondary.
Vincent Lucas, 60, smiled and offered a hearty laugh. He knew that walk, that swagger, the way Jordan bobbed his head and seemed to glide while the defensive linemen plodded. He hadn't seen that walk all last season, but it was so obvious this time -- during PSU's 24-17 overtime victory against Illinois -- that even his friends picked up on it.

"Yeah," Vincent told him. "There he goes. He's in a zone right now; I can tell by the way he walks."

That walk was different last season, back when the cornerback mainly played special teams. Fans knew him only as the kid from prep school, if they knew him at all. But everyone knows Jordan Lucas and that swagger now.

He's a vocal leader on the secondary, the kid who'd toss on a winter jacket in high school and run on the sidewalks in December, even when flurries hit the streets of New Rochelle, N.Y. He's the defensive back who leads the team in interceptions (two), forced fumbles (two) and boasts 4.5 tackles for loss. He's one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise struggling defense, one of the first players to sprint out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel every home game.

"Jordan Lucas is one of the better football players on our team," Bill O'Brien said. "He brings a competitive toughness to our football team that I really like."

O'Brien leaned against the railing last year and overlooked the weight room on some days, as Lucas and former cornerback Stephon Morris took turns lifting barbells while most of their teammates slept. Morris awoke stiff on some mornings, tempted to pull the sheets over his head or hit "snooze," but he'd always receive a text or call from Jordan: "What're we doing today, Steph?"

"He just wouldn't stay away," Morris said with a laugh. "And I couldn't say no to him; I had to set an example. And he never missed a workout -- never. That's rare."

Jordan added to his work ethic, one he borrowed from a father who grew up on a North Carolina farm and fed the family pigs two hours before the school bell sounded. He evolved into one of the Nittany Lions' gym rats, a player who has still never missed a single optional workout. But teammate Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who grew up 5 minutes from Lucas in the Bronx, knew something was amiss last year. So did Morris.

"I'm not going to lie," Morris said. "He didn't have any confidence."

Jordan saw time at cornerback on the final game of the year last season. Morris remembers his big eyes while Jordan can still recall standing on the sideline, growing more overwhelmed with every shoulder pat and motivating word his teammates would utter: "Get ready!" "You ready for this?" "C'mon, it's your turn!"

On a recent fall afternoon, when red and yellow leaves littered the pavement in front of the football building, Jordan at first insisted he didn't feel lost last season. After all, he was the talkative guy now. He was the player that true freshman Jordan Smith looked up to like a big brother; he was a big reason Penn State's defense wasn't in total disarray.

But, a few minutes later, he relented. With a varsity jacket zipped up near his chin, he admitted -- despite how far along he is today -- that he was overwhelmed at times last year. He had lost that swagger, misplaced somewhere between the transition of college and watching his work ethic exceed his production.

"I've always been the same dude but, freshman year, it just didn't feel like I was playing high school football again. It actually felt like college football," Lucas said. "Now? The college game has slowed down a bit. It feels closer to the high school game again. I didn't feel like that same Jordan last year; I do now."

Added Vincent: "He was a little bit intimidated about the whole thing [last year], more than he let on."

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAYJordan Lucas has two interceptions and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
But there was a bridge between the Lucas of today and the Lucas of last year, and it was built on a heartfelt talk with his father on a nippy January morning. At Jordan's request, Vincent had awoken while the moon still hung in the sky and drove four hours to The Waffle Shop, a Penn State staple with salmon-trimmed tables and fliers taped in columns over the windows.

Between bites of pancakes, bacon and homefries, Jordan told his father he just didn't feel the same. He did what he always did -- running in the snow, training on the field over the offseason, reclining in his usual film-room seat -- but he was no longer the strongest or fastest or most athletic. Vincent leaned in and whispered that his only enemies were time and experience, not skill or talent. With Morris' departure, now was the time to step up. Now was the time to to put that mindset behind him, work even harder and let his talent catch up with his work ethic.

"You may not be the best, but you can always be the hardest worker," Jordan told ESPN.com. "That's what Coach [John] Butler -- and my dad -- always tell me."

By June, Jordan had become the unquestioned starter at cornerback. By October, that swagger had strolled on back to Jordan's step; he had become one of the defense's top players. He has recorded interceptions in two of the last four games, and Morris still calls him every week to remind him he's the team's top defensive back right now -- and to keep acting like it.

Just like Vincent and his friends, Morris notices that swagger to his step now. And now that the walk, that confidence, has returned, Jordan is looking forward. When asked about what's next, Jordan looked directly ahead and spoke with the conviction of a man who already has seen his future.

"I'm not going to stop. I look at it like this, there's no ceiling for me," he said. "I want to keep going and, hey, maybe one day there will be a ceiling. But, even then, I'm never going to tell myself that. Each day I'm going to get better. Each day I'm going to give my best."

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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