NEW ORLEANS — When veteran defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois of the San Francisco 49ers looks around at his teammates who are playing in Super Bowl XLVII, he feels right at home on his side of the ball.
Players from the Southeastern Conference are sprinkled throughout the NFL’s third-ranked defensive unit: ends Ray McDonald (Florida) and Justin Smith (Missouri), right inside linebacker Patrick Willis (Ole Miss), right outside linebacker Aldon Smith (Missouri), left cornerback Carlos Rogers (Auburn) and nickel back Chris Culliver (South Carolina).
Then, there is Jean Francois, a standout player from LSU who was named the Defensive Player of the Game in the Tigers’ 38-24 victory against top-ranked Ohio State in the 2007 BCS national championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Year in and year out, the SEC is the best conference and has the best players,’’ said Jean Francois, a seventh-round draft pick of the 49ers in 2009. “That ain’t just me saying it; that’s a fact.’’
It’s also a fact that with a victory Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, Jean Francois would join an elite group of players who have won a Super Bowl and a national championship at the same venue.
That fact is not lost on Jean Francois. Nor is the happenstance that the 49ers also are staying in the same downtown hotel this week where the Tigers stayed when they beat the Buckeyes in January 2008.
“Same stadium, same hotel, same meeting rooms,’’ Jean Francois said. “You never know.’’
Asked if the coincidence could be a good omen, Jean Francois replied: “ I hope so. I ain’t going to knock my head twice for good luck or put all my chips in on that, but it might happen. I keep that in the back of my mind.’’
Though Jean Francois fills a reserve role for the 49ers, he is a regarded as a valued player for 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Jean Francois (6-3, 295) is credited with making game-changing plays in crucial victories against the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals.
“Ricky can play any of the three spots up front,’’ Fangio said. “He replaced Justin Smith when he missed two games (with a torn triceps) and went in there and did a really nice job for us. He helped seal the win in New England when he sacked (Tom) Brady, and he made a big play when we were struggling against Arizona to help us win the division. He’s played well and is a darn good player.’’
A free agent in March, a notable performance by Jean Francois against the Ravens could go a long way in locking down a relatively lucrative, long-term contract with the 49ers.
“I don’t worry about all that stuff,’’ said Jean Francois, who had 22 tackles and two sacks this season. “That will take care of itself. To me, this is just another football game. That’s how you got to look at it. When you start making it bigger than it is, that’s when things start falling apart piece by piece.
“So I’ve just got to play my game. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’’