BATON ROUGE, La. - How does this deal sound? Improve your school work and you get a chance to play in two of the biggest games in LSU history.
For Tigers defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, that is essentially how it worked out.
He played for the first time this season in LSU's Southeastern Conference championship game triumph over Tennessee and now is slated to suit up when LSU plays Ohio State for the national championship on Jan. 7.
LSU, meanwhile, is grateful for the return of a player who was developing into a force before academic trouble sidelined him for nearly a year.
``He was in a very unfortunate situation and fought through it and really was a man's man through the whole thing,'' defensive coordinator Bo Pelini recalled after a recent practice. ``He stayed positive, was a team guy and prepared himself for when he was able to play again. He's a heck of a football player and he's an important part of what we're doing.''
During the heart of the 2006 season, Jean-Francois, who grew up in Miami, was becoming very comfortable with his decision to leave his home state to play for LSU.
He sometimes joked that he knew it was a good fit because it was the first place he had been where no one seemed to have any trouble pronouncing his French last name. He also fit in nicely on the field as a redshirt freshman.
He played in 12 games, starting once. He had 10 solo tackles, assisted on 17 others and was credited with 5 1/2 tackles for losses with three sacks.
The Tigers went 10-2 during that stretch, earning a berth in the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame, but Jean-Francois never got to suit up for the victory over the Irish.
Just days before the game, head coach Les Miles told Jean-Francois academic trouble left him ineligible, not only for the Sugar Bowl but possibly for much of 2007.
``I felt sorry for myself at one point, but I had to start becoming a grown man,'' Jean-Francois said. ``I had to start paying my dues for what I did.''
Jean-Francois declined to discuss his academic trouble in detail. He initially appealed to be reinstated for this season, but was denied.
Some advised him to continue fighting with appeals, but Jean-Francois said he ultimately decided his suspension could serve a useful purpose - namely, making him a better student.
``I feel better off for it. It made me appreciate the things around me, my coaches, my family, everybody around me,'' Jean-Francois said. ``I appreciate the game more. It made me a better student. It gave me more time to stick to academics and at times I felt really good, because I said, 'I'm in the classroom, I'm making good grades, I have time to do the assignments.' ... And when may academic adviser came to me and said I was on track to graduate, I was excited.''
Jean-Francois is listed as a defensive end. At 290 pounds, he also can play defensive tackle. He said he feels comfortable at both and would be happy to play wherever the coaches put him.
That's not just because he's thankful to be back on the field after sitting out for a year. He's been praised before for his willingness to do whatever the team needed.
Even though he couldn't play in games, he was permitted to practice throughout the fall. He often worked with the scout team, sometimes at defensive end or tackle, and sometimes even at linebacker.
``I just stood by my teammates,'' Jean-Francois said. ``I was on the sideline every home game, cheering them on, giving them motivation, trying to keep their heads up if we were down, trying to make sure they did everything to perfection.''
During LSU's victory in the SEC championship game, Jean-Francois made two solo tackles and assisted on another while helping the Tigers limit Tennessee to 97 yards rushing. Although a little behind on his conditioning, his relative good health and freshness was needed on a line that had been increasingly hampered by nagging injuries.
``It's great,'' Pelini said of Jean-Francois' return. ``You get Ricky in there it just gives you one more experienced guy who's a heck of a football player, so it made us better really quick.''

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