HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana safety Micah Eugene picked himself up off the Strawberry Stadium turf in utter disbelief.

After delivering what he believed to be a legal hit against Central Arkansas running back Desmond Smith, Eugene went into panic mode at the sight of a flag following what would have been a forced fumble and recovery by Anthony Murphy.

“I was scared. I didn’t want to get ejected,” Eugene said. “I probably would have cried if that would have happened. I felt like it was a good hit with my shoulder. I knew it wasn’t helmet-to-helmet.”

Central Arkansas was already out to a quick 10-7 lead until Eugene intervened. The sequence was overturned by instant replay, giving Southeastern possession that led toward a go-ahead 89-yard touchdown drive and a lead the Lions never relinquished.

For those who previously followed Eugene’s career while at LSU, the play was reminiscent of the 5-foot-10, 188-pounder’s ability to bring a physical presence from the secondary, where he flourished as a nickel and dime back for the Tigers.

The best game of Eugene’s brief career at Southeastern before 8,766 fans — which included a season-high nine tackles — was pivotal in a key 41-24 Southland Conference victory and enabled the Lions (6-2, 4-0) to move into sole possession of the league’s lead.

One year ago, Eugene was still part of a sixth-ranked LSU team that was upset at Ole Miss 27-24 before a crowd of 61,160 and nationally televised ESPN2 audience.

Three games later, Eugene was suspended from the team for undisclosed reasons, didn’t play again in an LSU uniform and said he was told by coach Les Miles three days before the start of the spring semester to seek a transfer.

“I really had to hurry and find something,” Eugene said. “It was in the paper that I was suspended and there were some schools like Southeastern or McNeese looking. I was telling them I wasn’t sure if I was off the team yet, and then I got the call and committed to Southeastern. I told them I was thankful for the opportunity to get a second chance.”

Eugene declined to delve into any specifics surrounding his departure but expounded on the myriad reasons why Southeastern has been the perfect landing spot for the former Acadiana High All-State selection.

“I love it here,” he said. “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. I don’t regret having to leave LSU. They’ve been so welcoming. Everybody’s like family.”

SLU became an attractive option based on the trajectory coach Ron Roberts had SLU’s program pointed. The Lions went 11-3 a year ago, won the school’s first Southland Conference title and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals.

The Lions returned six starters on defense — three of which were members in the secondary — and welcomed Eugene and two additional LSU transfers in Derrick Raymond and JQ Sandolph along with Jordan Batiste of Tulane.

“I believe in fresh starts and giving every kid an opportunity to respond the way you want him to respond,” Roberts said of Eugene. “You tell him your expectations and hold them accountable.”

Eugene made himself right at home in his Southeastern debut, returning a fumble for a 3-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the Lions’ eventual 41-14 victory over Jacksonville.

After being slowed by a groin pull that resulted in him missing the 24-23 loss at Southeast Missouri, Eugene has rebounded with his best stretch of the season — with seven tackles against Northwestern State and seven at Lamar before last week’s breakout performance.

Eugene, who had 52 tackles in 23 games at LSU, ranks fifth on SLU’s defense with 41 tackles to go along with a pair of fumble recoveries.

Moreover, Eugene said his personal renaissance has extended off the field as well, with community service involvement around town and joining the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“My dad’s said he’s noticed a change in me and how happy I am,” said Eugene, who said he’s 24-27 hours shy of his general studies degree. “It’s been like a life change.”