Jalen McCleskey, Vol Legacy
When Jalen McCleskey hits a college football field for the first time, he’ll be nothing like his father, J.J. McCleskey. The younger McCleskey is a far different athlete. College recruiters have noticed as much.
J.J. McCleskey is an all-time Tennessee fan-favorite for good reason. He was a classic overachiever in every sense of the term. When he played at Tennessee in the early 1990′s, he was 5-foot-7 and wore a size seven shoe. No matter, McCleskey would go on to be a solid contributor for the Vols and play six seasons in the NFL. It’s the kind of story that just doesn’t happen, except it did.
Jalen McCleskey won’t face the same challenges. Just a 15-year-old rising junior, he is already pushing 5-10 and 150 pounds. There’s more room to grow as evident by his size 13 shoe. Moreover, he’s barely lifted weights until recently.
“It’s a totally different situation,” J.J. McCleskey said when asked if his son was an overachiever. “Absolutely not an overachieving story, no.”
Over achiever or not, Jalen McCleskey is a legit college football prospect. That wasn’t always the case.
Last year, McCleskey ran the 40-yard-dash in a less than stellar time: 4.9 seconds. During a camp at Mississippi State this summer, he ran a 4.48. He bested that with a 4.47-second at a Tennessee camp late last month. McCleskey said he believes his son surprised UT’s coaches with the speedy run.
“He has positioned himself in a good situation because of his work ethic,” J.J. McCleskey said. “Being smaller in the eighth grade and ninth grade, him grinding and doing the things he’s supposed to do, not making mistakes and really being a student of the game, that’s more joy than seeing him score touchdowns on Friday night.
“His speed has just really taken off. That’s just because of maturity. Jalen really has a lot of upside. I’m so thankful that he’s got that work ethic. He’s not going to get the big head. He’s not going to get overconfident. He does have swag but at the end of the day, Jalen knows that his bread and butter is outworking everybody.”
J.J. McCleskey knows how to develop college football prospects. He runs a training academy just outside of New Orleans. The plan for his son was to work on everything but the weight room until recently. Route-running, pass catching and calisthenics were key.
“Not to seem cocky or overconfident but my son has positioned himself to have a great skill set,” the elder McCleskey said. “He’s a young junior prospect. He’s still 15-years-old. You can’t really get on the weights until you’re 13-and-a-half to 14-years old so what we did was we built his skill set.
“Running routes, all the routes you would see college and professional receivers run, being able to get in and out of cuts quick, sink his hips, being able to catch the ball, look it in and tuck it away. He’s a really, really, really disciplined receiver. We had to do that because of his young nature. To build him up, we had to do those things. He’s very advanced as far as being a receiver. He’s a hard worker.”
When asked about receiving recent college interest, Jalen McCleskey said, “It’s a great experience. All the colleges looking at me have treated me well. I’m really looking forward to playing at the next level.”
LSU has shown interest in McCleskey. So has Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Those schools will have some ground to make up if and when Tennessee offers McCleskey a scholarship. The family has been impressed by first-year UT coach Butch Jones.
“One thing I know after being in Knoxville last week is Butch Jones has that zeal,” J.J. McCleskey said. “It’s the zeal he has that is going to turn that program around.”
The McCleskey family has an understandable allegiance to Tennessee. J.J. McCleskey doesn’t hide that whatsoever.
“Definitely have a lot of ties,” the former Karns High School graduate said. “I don’t miss a football game. Jalen will tell you that Rocky Top rules in my house. I’m just really looking forward to this new coaching staff to turn things around.”
Jalen McCleskey has similar feelings about the Vols, despite growing up near LSU.
“Knowing that he went to Tennessee, it would be pretty good to go there and keep the legacy going,” the younger McCleskey said.
J.J. McCleskey has long been a fan favorite among Tennessee fans. Size was a factor in that. Despite his diminutive stature, McCleskey said he never was intimidated when he showed up on UT’s campus.
“I was so overconfident that you couldn’t have told me I was 5-foot-7…I try to instill that in all my student-athletes and my son,” McCleskey said. “You have to be bipolar. You have to have two different attitudes when you go on the field. You have to be polite and gentle and be respectful when you’re off the field.
“When you’re on the field you really have to turn into a different person. I had to turn to that different person to make it.”
Making it wasn’t easy during McCleskey’s career. He played alongside or practiced against receivers Anthony Morgan, Carl Pickens, Alvin Harper, Thomas Woods and defensive backs Dale Carter and Jeremy Lincoln.
“It was a blessing just to be around it,” McCleskey said. “I tell Jalen our practices were tougher than the games. I remember covering [former Syracuse receiver] Herman Moore in the 1990 Sugar Bowl.
“I had seen Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper. [Moore] was just another receiver. That’s not to knock Herman Moore. Just the fact that we had a collection of talent.”
UT’s coaches have certainly taken notice. A scholarship offer hasn’t been extended yet but once Jalen adds some weight to his 150-pound frame, the Vols and other schools figure to chase the 2015 prospect in earnest.
“I think coach Jones’ offense would fit Jalen,” J.J. McCleskey said, “the fast tempo and the fact that Jalen can run.”