Jalen Mills spent months not knowing his role on the LSU football team.
There was that incident in May in which he allegedly struck a woman, an arrest in June and subsequent suspension.
LSU coach Les Miles lifted Mills’ suspension the opening day of fall camp, but his playing status with the team seemed murky. He was only rotating with the starters.
Seconds before the team ran out of the tunnel for Saturday’s season opener against Wisconsin, Miles informed Mills.
“Coach Miles told me, ‘I hope you’re ready to play,’ ” Mills said. “Once he told me that, it was just a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”
No position group played better than Mills and his band of defensive backs. They smothered receivers, pressured the quarterback and intercepted two passes.
They did it all while missing a premiere member of their crew: cornerback Rashard Robinson. Robinson is expected to return from a one-game suspension when No. 12 LSU hosts Sam Houston State (1-1) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Don’t look for him to start. Miles said this week that he’d expect Jalen Collins to start opposite Tre’Davious White for a second straight week. Collins — and everyone else in the secondary — played too well last week to warrant a change.
ESPN play-by-play man Sean McDonough, during the TV broadcast, referred to Wisconsin’s receivers as being “blanketed.”
The Tigers (1-0) will get stiffer competition down the road. After all, Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy was making his first start at the position, and the Badgers receivers are a young group.
A sterner test might come this week. Sam Houston State, a Football Championship Subdivision team, has four receivers who transferred from major college programs. The Bearkats have an offense that has rolled up 190 plays and 713 passing yards in two games.
The Tigers will combat that with a group of defensive backs who lived up to lofty expectations in the season opener.
“I saw a group of guys that can be great, a group of guys that can be one of the bests in the country,” White said.
It seemed like each defensive back had a role in the stifling performance.
Safety Ronald Martin had a late-game interception that all but sealed the win. Collins had blanket coverage, and White made one of the best tackles of the game — he fought through a block and, while lying on the turf, grabbed the ankles of Wisconsin receiver Reggie Love, limiting him to a 2-yard gain.
Dwayne Thomas, in for a briefly injured Collins, had a pass breakup on one of his first plays in that role, and a handful of young safeties — Rickey Jefferson and freshman Jamal Adams — played good enough, too.
And Mills? He tackled Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon for a 1-yard loss during the first drive of the game, intercepted McEvoy for a game-changing pick and pressured the QB to force the other interception.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play at all or how many minutes I was going to play,” he said.
Mills spent the summer working out alone, away from LSU’s football operations building. It was his punishment for a June arrest. He allegedly struck a woman during a May incident at his apartment complex.
Mills has been charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor, and he plans to plead not guilty. An arraignment date has not been set.
“I know that him being separated from the team and us not communicating with him and really going beyond him in planning until he could rejoin the team, really affected him,” Miles said. “I think his contribution (Saturday) was significant.”
After his interception, Mills tucked his hands behind his lower back and then flipped them atop his head in a celebratory move.
White, one of the first in on the celebration, can’t explain the interception dance, but he knows it was a sign that his good friend has returned.
“He probably doesn’t know what he did. Jalen, he’s a very emotional guy so, when he makes a big-time play, he’s going to flex,” he said. “They call him ‘Money Mills.’ ”