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NFL Draft

Jalen Tolbert: NFL Draft Prospect Interview

  • Justin Melo
  • January 31, 2022
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Jalen Tolbert: NFL Draft 2022

  If you’re looking for a receiver prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft ​that can stretch the field and reign victorious in contested-catch situations, South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert could be both the beginning and end of your search. One of the most prolific receivers in school history, Tolbert racked up an astounding 82 receptions for 1,474 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021. Tolbert routinely displayed his rare combination of explosiveness and vertical ability on what felt like a weekly basis. Tolbert recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about the goals he hopes to achieve at the Senior Bowl, how he best uses his tremendous size at the receiver position, his favorite route to run, debunking the “small school” nonsense, and so much more. JM: You played basketball and baseball in addition to football in high school. How did competing in those two sports make you a better football player? JT: I think playing basketball and baseball really helped pave the way for me to further develop as a football player. A lot of people don’t know that I didn’t actually start playing football until the 10th or 11th grade in high school. Playing basketball and baseball exposed me to a wide variety of skills that translated to the football field. When you think about playing these sports, you have to high-point the ball in order to secure a rebound in basketball. You can’t let your opponent take the ball away. You learn how to stay skinny and drop your shoulders when playing baseball. There’s a lot of quickness and physicality involved in baseball as well. Basketball takes great spatial awareness. There are just so many skills that directly translate. You have to track the ball in baseball of course. Baseball teaches terrific hand-eye coordination. That little ball comes at you fast in the outfield (laughs). Playing those sports really helped me as a football player. JM: I love that. You didn’t specialize too early and it paid off for you. The numbers speak for themselves. You’re one of the most productive receivers in the 2022 NFL Draft. You recorded 82 catches for 1,474 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021. You posted career-highs in all three of those categories. What allowed you to take such a sizable step forward this past season? JT: I can’t take credit for all of it. My offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and wide receivers coach Michael Smith are two people that did a great job helping me understand coverages at a much higher level. We had a lot of late-night film sessions together. My quarterback Jake Bentley deserves a ton of credit as well. He’s a veteran quarterback that took me under his wing. We started learning together. We put the work in. We built an excellent connection. The coaches were always there for me when I wanted to run routes late at night. We spent many late nights in the film room together. I progressively learned more and more about the game of football and the wide receiver position as a whole. I taught myself in the offseason. I dedicated myself to the process. I spent time studying coverages in the summer. I spent time working on my releases and how to set up different routes. I went out there and caught the football. I even worked on my abilities as a blocker. I continued to put in the work. JM: It clearly paid off for you in a major way. You’re headed to the Senior Bowl in just a few days. The Draft Network is so excited to watch you compete in person in Mobile. What are you hoping to prove to NFL scouts and general managers throughout the week? JT: I’m ready to prove that my level of competition doesn’t matter. I can compete at any level. I belong at the next level. I consider myself to be one of the best receivers in this draft class. I’m gonna go out there and work my butt off to prove that to everybody in attendance. I am a guy that they can trust to make plays on Sundays. They can trust me not only as a football player but as a teammate as well. I can’t wait to compete in Mobile. I’m going to show everybody why I should be an early draft pick. JM: I’m not sure how well you know the Senior Bowl roster, but if you do, are you looking forward to battling against any of the defensive backs in attendance? JT: Roger McCreary (Auburn) and I grew up in the same neighborhood. We’re from the same place. That’s my guy and I’m super excited to see him in Mobile. He’s actually on the same team as me so we’ll be going up against one another in practice. I’m definitely excited for that. Cam Taylor-Britt from Nebraska is on my team as well. We signed to the same agency throughout the pre-draft process so we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over these past few weeks. It’ll be great to practice against him. We actually played against each other two years ago when we played Nebraska. Coby Bryant from Cincinnati won the Jim Thorpe award. That’s another opportunity for me. I look forward to competing against him. He’s on the other team, so hopefully, I’ll see him in the game. All of these guys are great players as a whole. I’m looking forward to competing and showing what I can do. JM: We can’t wait to watch you compete throughout the week. You briefly brought up the small school stereotype. How do you typically respond to the level of competition question? JT: I love being overlooked and being the underdog. I’m used to it. It’s been that way since I first started playing football. It gives me a different edge. I’ll forever have that chip on my shoulder. I’m ready to prove myself to whoever it may be. I respond by competing. Let the results speak for themselves. I’m always ready to compete and work. I’m looking forward to answering those questions. JM: When I turn the tape on, I see a receiver with terrific size that is often the victor of vertical balls that many consider to be 50-50. You make them feel like 75-25 in your favor. How did you develop that aspect of your game? JT: I take it back to my basketball and baseball days. I always knew that I needed to go get the ball for my team. I have an extremely competitive mindset. That’s something I always carry with me on game day. The way I approach those 50-50 balls, it’s either my ball or nobody’s ball (laughs). I wanna win in that situation and make those plays every single time. That’s just how I look at it. JM: You have terrific size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) for the next level. How do you make the most of that size at the catch point? JT: I believe that my ability at the catch point is the strongest aspect of my game. I understand how to use my strong frame to attack the ball when it’s in the air. I don’t let the ball get to my chest. I don’t let it fall underneath me. I like to get the ball when it’s at its highest point. I think of myself as a go-getter. When I see the ball in the air, my goal is to get it before anybody else can. I love leaping and catching the ball at the highest catch point. JM: Do you have a favorite route to run? JT: I like running a shake-corner route. That allows me to burst inside for like three steps, get vertical, and burst back to the outside. I like running post routes and go balls as well. I appreciate the longer-developing routes and throws. I love those deep balls that put the defensive back in a one-on-one situation. It allows me to attack the ball and win those 50-50 situations, as you said earlier. As I continue to learn the game and progress forward, I’m growing to like a handful of different routes. I’m widening my variety as we speak. I want to have a bunch of favorite routes. JM: You’ve given a ton of credit to your quarterback, offensive coordinator, and wide receivers coach throughout this conversation. Tell me a little about the scheme South Alabama ran on offense and how you think it helped prepare you for what’s next. JT: We ran a spread offense but we amped it up this past season. Coach Applewhite brought a huge playbook with him to the program. We ran that Alabama offense that you saw DeVonta Smith run a few years ago. It involved a lot of pre-snap motion. It really helped me. Pre-snap movement helped me educate myself on pre-snap coverages. It earned me some matchups with linebackers in coverage and things of that nature. It gave me a lot of advantages and mismatches in coverage. It taught me a wide variety of routes and plays I may see at the next level. We had a handful of routes where you might come back down the stem or option routes. I didn’t have that in the playbook prior to this past season. Coach Applewhite and the staff introduced me to a lot of that stuff. It opened up another dimension for me as a receiver. I was constantly learning more and more. JM: It sounds like coach Applewhite taught you a lot about playing the receiver position this past season. I’m curious which receivers you enjoyed watching growing up. Do you model your game after anyone in particular? JT: I was actually blessed to watch Julio Jones play high school football. My dad coached high school football against Julio’s team (Foley). I watched him and always kept up with his career from that point forward. He obviously went on to become a legend within the state of Alabama. I don’t really model my game after anybody but I do enjoy studying and learning from Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, Odell Beckham Jr., and Cooper Kupp. Those are great receivers and I enjoy watching how they move and conduct themselves. They’re so great at manipulating defensive backs in coverage. I try to take something from every single one of those guys and add it to my skill set. JM: Those are some great players to learn from. I’m going to put you in a scenario I enjoy putting offensive playmakers in. Which do you prefer, catching a 75-yard touchdown on a go ball, or making six-plus catches on a long, scoring drive? JT: That’s a tough one. As of now, I think I’d have to choose the six-plus catches on a long scoring drive. Wide receivers in the NFL get paid to move the chains. That’s what we’re relied on for. Touchdowns are great but they become harder and harder to come by. It’s all about doing whatever you can do to help the team. Catching a couple of first downs and setting up a touchdown drive is the way to go. You never know, I might still be the one to score a touchdown on that long scoring drive (laughs). I would definitely choose the six-plus catches. JM: I love that answer because every time I ask a receiver that question, they always take the 75-yard touchdown (laughs). JT: It’s a tough one (laughs). I’m just trying to think of the bigger picture. You definitely wanna do whatever you can to help the team and keep the offense in rhythm. Six catches on one drive is a lot of catches. You might end up with six more and two touchdowns throughout the course of the game. You just never know. JM: That’s the right mindset. If you could catch a pass from any quarterback in the NFL, who would you choose and why? JT: I’d have to go with Tom Brady. He probably won’t be in the NFL for that much longer. I think he’s the best of all time. He’s still the best in the game as of right now. The way that he throws the ball, the way that he reads the game, catching a pass from him would be awesome. Obviously, I would have to be on his team in order for that to happen. He’s a quarterback that throws the ball to people that earn his trust. He looks for those guys. If he’s throwing me the ball, it means that he trusts me (laughs). That would be pretty cool. Having the confidence of somebody like him would mean a lot to me. JM: That’s a great point. The NFL Combine is a little while away, but are you looking forward to competing in any drills in particular? JT: Not necessarily. I’m just more looking forward to the entire combine experience. It’s definitely an opportunity I can take full advantage of. I’m looking forward to running the 40-yard dash. I’m excited to run the on-field route drills. I can use those opportunities to answer some questions people might have on me. I’m excited for the combine as a whole. JM: I’ve really appreciated your time today, Jalen. In closing, what kind of impact is Jalen Tolbert going to make at the next level? JT: Jalen Tolbert is going to shock a lot of people at the next level. I’m gonna continue to work and get better. I’m gonna make a big impact. Whether that means I’m catching touchdowns, moving the chains, blocking in the run game, or playing on special teams, only time will tell. I’m ready to compete.

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Justin Melo