Football intelligence. Check. Physicality. Check. Ball skills. Check. Vanderbilt Commodores cornerback Jeremy Lucien ticks several of the boxes of defensive back evaluation, and yet, he’s far from your average college football cornerback.
Lucien’s football and personal journey has been shaped by adversity, has seen him across continents, and could result in him being selected in the 2023 NFL Draft in less than six months’ time.
Jeremy Lucien Is Not Your Average CFB Cornerback
“I try to just focus on the step that’s in front of me,” Lucien explained during a recent sit down with Pro Football Network. Lucien’s sole focus is on Vanderbilt’s season-defining game with Tennessee rather than anything that comes after. “If you try and look too many steps ahead, you’ll trip on the ones that are right in front of you.”
That doesn’t mean to say that Lucien hasn’t thought of the 2023 NFL Draft. He’s long dreamt of playing in the NFL, and it isn’t by happy accident that he finds himself competing against the best in the nation in the SEC for his final season at the CFB level.
However, with bowl eligibility on the line for the first time since 2018, the Vanderbilt cornerback is focused on the job at hand rather than the one that he might have next year.
It’s in talking about that upcoming task — trying to shut down a wide receiver duo in Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt that might be the best in the nation — you first get a glimpse of what separates Lucien from your average college football corner.
The Vanderbilt CB is fresh off the practice field, exhausted from a hard session, but he’s as sharp as if he’s come straight out of a film study or a class on mechanical engineering.
“When you face tempo teams, one of the things that makes studying film easier is they don’t do a whole lot of complicated stuff. You’re going to see a lot of the same plays over and over. Hyatt is a really explosive receiver, so they’re definitely going to rely on him a lot during the game. Knowing where a guy like him is at on any given snap is huge.”
A self-confessed nerd, Lucien prides himself on his intelligence and how that translates to the field. In the 40 minutes that we spent talking about his football journey, Lucien effortlessly recalls multiple plays that helped showcase how that intelligence manifests itself on the football field.
The first comes from earlier in his SEC first season. The second, which also demonstrates the physicality that Lucien plays with, comes from a famous win over Florida that now has the Commodores in position to book a bowl-season berth with a win over Tennessee.
“There were two different drives, two screen plays that they tried to throw to my side. The receivers came out in the stack. As soon as one of them stepped back, I was flying like a bullet, lit up the blocker, and forced the ball back into my help and it got tackled.
“The second time, the same play happens, so I fly in even faster, lit up the blocker, the ball carrier tries to go outside, and I make the play for a one-yard TFL. That shows the strength and trigger. That and intelligence are two pretty big aspects of my game.”
Those aspects of his game have allowed Lucien to flourish in his first season in the SEC. A former two-star recruit, who held a priority walk-on offer from Northwestern — unsurprisingly, another academic institution — but only one FBS offer as he emerged from Choate Rosemary Hall High School, it would have been easy to get lost against the highest level of competition in college football.
But that is exactly what the Vanderbilt cornerback wanted when he entered the transfer portal at the end of the 2021 season. Lucien wanted to test his mettle against the best in the nation.
Knowing that the Commodores’ schedule allowed him to take on Georgia and Alabama, plus high-powered Ole Miss and Wake Forest offenses, Lucien made his way to Nashville. This season has affirmed his belief that he belongs at the highest level.
“I’m a super self-critical person,” Lucien explains. “I’d say this is the best season I’ve had to date. There are plays that I wish l could have back and things I could have done better. But what’s been good is that I’ve prepared well enough that I don’t ever go out onto the field, go through a game feeling I’m not matched or that guys are faster or stronger than me. I feel like I’m right at home in this league, which has been comforting.”
High School Experience Helps Lucien Embrace Adversity
Finding comfort in football isn’t something that has always come easy to Lucien. The Vanderbilt cornerback admits to being nervous to the point of backing out ahead of his first exposure to competitive football as a seven-year-old who’d been influenced by his cousin Donovan. For a player whose intelligence is one of his calling cards, Lucien refers to himself as a “space cadet” who used to wander around “lost in space.”
However, under the tutelage and training of his father Ronald in their New Jersey backyard, Lucien began to dominate at the youth level of football and “never looked back from there.” The transition from youth football to high school proved to be a different experience again, giving the now-Vanderbilt cornerback his first taste of having to battle through adversity to find success on the field.
“Once I got to high school, I got my first taste of adversity. Everyone is bigger, stronger, faster. That was my first taste of what it was like to not be one of the best players on the field, to have to work my way up from the bottom of the totem pole.
“Rather than transfer, I wanted to try and stick it out. I ended up having a lot of success in my senior year. My love for football shifted from it being fun, to loving the lessons I learned from it, and how much it taught me to push through adversity.”
Lucien’s experiences at Choate taught him more than just how to battle on-field adversity. The high school experience is markedly different at a boarding school than at a public school. As the Vanderbilt cornerback explains, it prepared him for the next stage on his personal and football journey, while giving him life experiences unmatched by most college football players, including a three-month trip to Spain that left him fluent in Spanish.
“It is more difficult because you’re forced to grow up quicker than most kids. You’re away living on your own. You have to manage everything yourself. It forces you to be more independent. I would say that helped me grow a lot, really quickly. That made the transition to college a lot easier too, because for four years, I was getting used to living on my own.”
Having earned first-team All-Conference and Player of the Year Honorable Mention in his senior season at Choate, Lucien headed to UConn in 2018. With a thin DB room and coming in as one of the top players in the state, the freshman cornerback was plunged into action early and often.
While not ideal at one of the hardest positions in the sport, the experience proved pivotal for Lucien’s later success.
“I knew there was going to be a chance for me to play early. Had some success here and there, but it wasn’t the best season. That was to be expected. I was a freshman coming straight out of high school, and I’m being asked to play against a bunch of grown men. It’s a hard position to put a young corner in, but I’m glad I got that experience, as it allowed me to make more effective adjustments to my game going into the following year.”
Lucien Battled Adversity at UConn
Just as he was growing into his college football skin with an improved year as a sophomore, more adversity hit. The global pandemic resulted in UConn opting to cancel its football season. While impacting momentum for the young cornerback, Lucien offers a unique perspective that further demonstrates that he’s not your average college player.
“It was really weird. It was [the] first time since I was seven that I hadn’t played football in the fall. We just practiced and lifted. It was weird being a spectator. For me, though, I feel like I benefited a lot.
“Typically, you come in as a freshman, and you redshirt. What was good for me was that I got two full seasons of experience, then got a year off to think about all the improvements that I needed to make. I was able to come back the following years and have one of my most productive seasons up to that point.”
Remarkably, Lucien has made the step up from an independent team at UConn to be even more productive in the SEC with Vanderbilt. This year has seen the fifth-year senior set career highs in total tackles (46) and pass breakups (5).
While his intelligent approach to the game has helped smooth the transition, the Vanderbilt CB is quick to heap praise onto a Commodores coaching staff that has transformed the program from an SEC bottom-feeder in 2020 to the verge of bowl eligibility this fall.
“It still amazes me how much I’ve been able to grow in six months,” Lucien enthused. “The amount that I’ve learned from this coaching staff is crazy. Coach [Clark] Lea has completely changed my perspective on how this game is played. I feel like this is a very smart coaching staff, and I’ve learned about how offenses attack defenses. All that has allowed me to play much faster and be more confident every time I step foot on the field.”
Lucien has been shaped by adversity, his football journey, his experiences at UConn, and by his coaching staff at Vanderbilt. He’s drawn influences from two of the best college football cornerbacks to ever do it in Jalen Ramsey and Deion Sanders, evoking the former FSU standout’s physicality and dominance with Sanders’ trademark swagger.
It’s a rich confluence of influences that lead to Lucien being something more than your average college football corner. While reiterating that his focus is firmly on ensuring that this weekend’s game with Tennessee isn’t his last game at the level, my final question to the Vanderbilt CB requires him to provide a sales pitch to an NFL team. His answer — as you’d expect — is thought out, thorough, and convincing.
“I’m extremely coachable. If I make a mistake, point out how I’m supposed to be doing it, and I won’t make the same mistake over and over. My intelligence and football IQ is pretty high. I’ve been able to develop it over the years to be able to slow the game down and see things before they happen.
“Then, just a dominant mindset. When I step onto the field, you know I’m going to be better than the guy across from me. That’s what you need at the corner position. I’d say those are three things that I bring to the table.”
The guy likely lined up across from the Vanderbilt cornerback this weekend is considered one of the most explosive wide receivers in the nation. Containing the Tennessee pass catcher and helping the Commodores to a bowl game would add further evidence that Lucien is more than your average college football cornerback.