BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – He wasn't the biggest or strongest player on the field, but with quick-twitch cuts and big-play speed, Jaylin Lucas immediately caught Indiana coach Tom Allen's eye at a high school football camp.
"Wow," Allen said. "This is the kind of guy we’ve been looking for."
Allen envisioned Lucas scurrying around defenders at Memorial Stadium, accelerating from zero to 100 as fast as any player he's seen in 30 years of coaching. But there was a roadblock – Lucas, a Houma, La. native, was verbally committed to his home-state school, Tulane University.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Lucas began to garner national attention as a multi-sport athlete at Terrebone High School. Averaging 125.5 all-purpose yards per game, he was named a first-team all-state selection on his way to becoming the 12th-ranked all-purpose running back in the nation, according to Rivals.
The Power Five offers started rolling in throughout the spring of 2021, especially after Lucas ran a 10.64-second 100-meter dash to finish sixth in the LHSAA Class 5A State Meet. But in August of 2021, Hurricane Ida, tore through Louisiana, forcing the Lucas family to evacuate to Texas.
With the Category 4 storm leaving Lucas' home in unlivable conditions, he transferred to Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, La. for his senior year. Lucas made an immediate impact for the Cougars, posting four punt-return touchdowns, including a 75-yard touchdown return in the Class 4A quarterfinals game against No. 9 Carver.
Allen and former Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough refused to give up in their recruitment of Lucas, traveling to New Orleans for an in-home visit on Dec. 2. The following night, Lucas and Edna Karr lost in the semifinals to eventual state champion Westgate, but Lucas showed high-level versatility as a pass-catcher, dangerous runner in space and big-play threat on special teams.
Lucas de-committed from Tulane on Dec. 13, and two days later, Allen and McCullough's constant pursuit paid off. Lucas, a three-star recruit, flipped his commitment to Indiana on National Signing Day, giving Allen the electrifying playmaker he coveted.
"A complete package of a guy that has good ball skills, can catch as a running back, get the ball in space, that kind of a player and just speed," Allen said. "He’s not just quick, he’s also fast. He’s our fastest player."
When Lucas signed with the Hoosiers on Dec. 15, The Athletic's Bruce Feldman called Lucas one of the most dynamic recruits in the country. In Feldman's article, an anonymous Big Ten coach named Lucas – who was committed to Tulane at the time – his choice for a 2022 prospect that is flying under the radar. Julie Boudwin, who covers LSU football and recruiting, called Lucas one of the most electric athletes she's ever covered.
Lucas kept true to his commitment to Indiana despite McCullough's departure to Notre Dame, arriving in Bloomington in January of 2022. And so far, he hasn't always looked like a freshman.
“[Lucas] can make some plays that you see veteran college football players make," Josh Henderson, a running back transfer from North Carolina said.
New Indiana running backs coach Craig Johnson knows from 18 years in the NFL that for any young running back, adjusting to the the different terminology and offensive concepts is a big change early on. And you might not notice it when watching Lucas, but Johnson has stressed the importance of slowing down.
"It sounds different, but they have to learn to slow down," Johnson said. "If you play too fast, it hurts you. You can't set your blocks on the passes and sometimes you can't get into your release lanes for the passing game.
Eventually, we are trying to get them to play faster and then as they progress longer," Johnson continued. "But you try to slow them down so they can get to the tempo of the game ... With every young back, the more they understand it, the faster they'll play."
From his four years at Auburn, transfer running back Shaun Shivers said freshmen often come in with their heads spinning as they work to absorb a new playbook. But this transitional period didn't seem to take too long for Lucas. Shivers said Lucas reminds him of himself, possessing the speed to make explosive plays.
"Now he's calmed down and he's playing fast and you see the real Jaylin Lucas," Shivers said. "This is who he was in high school ... Every time you see the ball in his hands, you expect a touchdown or a big play to happen."
Allen doesn't view this as a developmental year for Lucas, either. He wants to utilize Lucas in a variety of ways this fall, whether it be in the running game, catching the ball out of the backfield or special teams.
"He’s really thick, got really thick legs and that allows us to play him and give him the football and allow him to be able to make a guy miss, yes, but also break tackles with his power," Allen said. "Very special athlete, excited about him and anxious to be able to get him going in our offense."
New Indiana offensive coordinator Walt Bell noted that Lucas will be just 17 years old when he takes his first snap, but said he's far along from a maturity standpoint in his approach to the game. Like Allen, Bell views Lucas as a true hybrid, pushing for touches as a freshman.
"He’s a guy that can go win in a five-by-five yard box," Bell said. "The first guy isn’t going to get him on the ground very much.
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