No other words maybe more accurate or appropriate in defining University of South Alabama football’s Jalen Tolbert than the 11th, 12th and 13th words of the University of South Alabama fight song “loyal, faithful and true.” Of course, the athleticism and skill set displayed by Tolbert on the field is evident, but those three words have accentuated some of the key underlying aspects of the junior wide out over his five-year Jaguar career.
Tolbert was born and raised in Mobile and was around the game of football from a young age as his dad coached the sport at Williamson High School. Surprisingly, football wasn’t his main passion through much of his early athletic career as he was “more of a baseball player.”
“My dad coached football at Williamson High School and I was always around the game, along with players like JaMarcus Russell, Nick Fairley and Antonio Coleman, but I never really had the urge to play,” Tolbert said. “When I got to high school, my friends were all about me playing so I ended up trying it out. At first, I really didn’t like it, but then football started to grow on me. I love competition and working, so to be able to put those two things together was good.”
Tolbert joined the football program at McGill-Toolen during his 10th-grade year and didn’t play much that initial season, but remained loyal to the sport and began to put in the work.
“I didn’t play at all in the 10th grade and then the summer going into the 11th grade I began to work out a lot more with football, running routes with my friends on the team, and started picking up more about the game,” Tolbert stated. “We won the state championship my junior year and I played more, but the summer heading into my senior year, I really started working hard; running routes and throwing all the time.”
Tolbert recorded 135 yards on 14 receptions his junior season and played a part in helping the Yellowjackets win a state title after posting a 13-1 record. The following season, he received honorable mention all-region accolades from the Mobile Press-Register/AL.com after catching 37 passes for 696 yards and nine touchdowns.
Even though he hadn’t played football as a youngster, being around his father, the players and the game had laid a good foundation for Tolbert.
“That showed me the outside view of the game and how to take coaching, whether it was for football or baseball,” Tolbert said of what he learned from watching his dad coach. “It showed me what type of work ethic it takes. I would see JaMarcus stay after practice and throw extra passes, Nick Fairley would run extra sprints, and I saw how it paid off for those guys. I was able to understand the competition and the urge that you have to have in order to be able to play at a high level.
“Being around my dad and seeing how he coached, while also parenting me in that same fashion, helped me out a lot.”
Following the conclusion of his senior season, Tolbert remained loyal to his hometown as he flipped his commitment from Michigan State and decided to sign with South Alabama, just in the program’s seventh season of competition. Surprisingly, baseball played a huge part in the Mobile native becoming a part of his hometown university.
“I received offers weekly and eventually committed to Michigan State,” Tolbert stated. “I loved it up there, the environment and everything about it, but I was also still heavily into baseball and being a two-sport athlete is something that I wanted to work at being because I wasn’t really sure which sport I wanted to play. I ended up de-committing from Michigan State mainly because of the baseball aspect. I came to South with the intention of playing both sports.”
Tolbert’s loyalty to football would be tested early on in his collegiate career as he hurt his knee — the first injury of his career — during fall camp after being projected to contribute as a true freshman. The injury would also put on hold his plans on trying to be a dual-sport athlete that season.
Following the 2017 campaign, there was also a coaching change for the Jaguar football program.
“My freshman year, I injured my knee during football camp and had to miss both football and baseball seasons with my 11-month rehab,” Tolbert said. “When Coach [Steve] Campbell and his staff came in after Coach [Joey] Jones, they didn’t know anything about me and hadn’t recruited me. To them at the time, I was just a hurt player with a knee injury that was working his way back. They didn’t know what I was capable of doing. Having to prove myself to them in the spring took away from the baseball aspect. My thoughts were that if I went and played baseball and wasn’t able to earn playing time in football in the fall, that it was kind of my own fault because I had left the sport that I was supposed to be devoting the main part of my energy to.”
Tolbert appeared in every game during his redshirt-freshman season and then became a starter for South the following year, finished with 27 catches for 521 yards. He also led the team with six touchdown receptions and an average of 19.3 yards per catch while recording 10 gains of 20-plus yards, the third-highest total on the squad.
His sophomore season seemed to serve as a spring board as he was voted first-team all-Sun Belt Conference that fall and was a first-team all-league selection by Pro Football Focus and Phil Steele Publications as well. He set school season records with 64 receptions and 1,085 receiving yards — making him the first 1,000-yard receiver in program history — while matching another with eight touchdown catches. One of two 1,000-yard receivers in the Sun Belt and one of 11 in the nation, Tolbert ranked among the top 40 in the country in catches and receiving yards per game.
Following the 2020 season, the Jaguar football program saw yet another coaching change and another possible opportunity for Tolbert’s loyalty to be tested coming off the impressive season. The Mobile native again chose South, and the decision was two-fold.
“I probably had an opportunity to again go somewhere else after the last coaching change, but I said ‘Why not finish my career here, and show that you don’t have to go to these big schools to be able to have success.’ KB [Kawaan Baker] and myself both had the goal of coming here and getting drafted,” Tolbert stated. “He accomplished his goal and now I’m trying to become the third person in program history to accomplish the same feat. I could have gone somewhere else where they might have had five guys drafted in a class, and I would have just been another number and another transfer that came in and got drafted. I wanted to create my own destiny and legacy.
“Of course, with the records that I’ve been able to accomplish this year means a lot. It also sets a standard for future players to come in and try to reach.”
South Alabama’s decision to bring back a familiar face for Tolbert also aided his decision to remain in Mobile instead of testing the waters elsewhere.
“He was the first player I talked to the day I got the job and I certainly understood that he had an opportunity to move on after last season, so I wanted to make sure that he knew I had his best interests in mind,” South Alabama head coach Kane Wommack said. “That’s the unique part of the game of football, it is certainly a team game but you also have to be mindful that everyone has individual goals that they want to accomplish and sometimes they have to sacrifice their individuality to be part of a team. At the same time, you want to honor those goals and the things that they want to accomplish and have set out for themselves before I became their head coach. So, that was the conversation we had about what it’s going to look like, letting him know that we were going to find creative ways to get him the ball — nobody will ever just be able to take him away with a one-on-one bracket to the field or the boundary — and boy have we shown how you can feature a player in this program.”
For a first-year coach whose mission is to take the program to the next level and change the culture, Tolbert’s decision to return was hugely important for the locker room.
“The messaging he created before I even walked in the building as the head coach was huge for the transition,” Wommack noted. “It’s special when you have someone like that; obviously he is a tremendous player on the field, but a lot of it was cultural and his ability to say ‘I know this guy, I’ve built a relationship with this guy, and he’s going to come in and bring our best interests at hand as players.’
“For guys to see a guy like that — that just caught 1,000 yards worth of balls — those players trust his guidance.”
Tolbert’s guidance is helping set the program for the future for the wide receivers that follow in his footsteps as they try to take the same mentality next fall as the 6-foot-3 wide out, who is projected to be an early round pick in this spring’s NFL draft.
“They saw how I was training during the offseason and the scouts that are at practices; they see that it’s truly a possible goal to accomplish, which makes me happy because that’s kind of what I wanted to happen here when I came,” Tolbert said. “Since I’ve been here, there haven’t been many practices with a lot of scouts, but for the freshmen and sophomores to see the 100-plus scouts that we’ve probably had at practices this fall helps them know that it’s just right there for them if they do the work. You can tell those younger guys really want to continue this, and the opportunity is there for them.”
Of the 32 NFL teams, 20 have attended practice with almost all sending multiple scouts including some that have sent three or even four.
“There’s a lot of interest in him, and those programs are going to do everything they can to get as many eyes on him and really evaluate him,” Director of Player Personnel Drew Dunn said. “They all really like him. The main thing these scouts are trying to decide is how much do I need to stand on the table in order for this guy to be a second-round guy because a lot of them think that he’s a high-second to third-round guy. A lot of them are intrigued by him. They want to keep digging and find out as much as they can about him and get as much tape as they can to build that argument whenever the time comes.”
One thing that stands out to not only the scouts but anyone who watches Tolbert in practice is his work ethic, and one person who gets a front-row view of that is his position coach Michael Smith. Smith has over 25 years of experience as an assistant at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level — all but one of those with a Power 5 school — and has coached several talented players over that span, but Tolbert sticks out.
“I think that Jalen’s one of the better guys that I’ve worked with,” Smith said. “I’ve been blessed to have worked with guys like Tyler Lockette, Jordy Nelson and Kevin Lockette, along with the guys I coached at Arkansas and Kentucky; I could go on forever. They are all really good football players and Jalen’s in the mix with them. I’ve only had a short period of time with him, but I know South Alabama’s been blessed to have had him because they’ve had a really good football player, but an even better man.”
“I think a lot of it is his overall work ethic,” Wommack said when asked why Tolbert is such a talented receiver. “Jalen is a very driven individual, a self-starter and one of those guys who has an internal drive to accomplish the task of becoming the greatest version of himself. I think the most exciting thing about Jalen Tolbert for NFL teams is that his best football is still ahead of him. He’s learning the game, he’s learned a ton of what more of an NFL system is going to look like this year under [offensive coordinator] Major Applewhite and our offensive staff. At the same time, to know that you’re getting a player that does everything right on and off the field, and is a self-starter and has a drive within themselves in order to accomplish something, and is a great teammate is special — and that is what the NFL is looking for.”
As you will find with a lot of elite athletes, the toughest competition and critical analysis often comes from within themselves.
“I never want to be complacent. The same way you got to a place is the same way it can be taken away from you if you’re complacent,” Tolbert said. “Being your hardest critic is something I feel gives you the confidence and helps you move forward because you’re being real with yourself. I still think about the play against Southern Miss in week one where [the officials] said I stepped out, and it’s week 12 of the season. I still think about Georgia Southern last season where if I had made a certain catch it would have sent us into overtime and maybe we win that game. When we played them earlier this year, that’s all I thought about in that game. I wanted to make up for what had happened the previous year.”
Entering the final week of the regular season, Tolbert leads the Sun Belt Conference in both catches, receptions per game (6.5) and receiving yards per outing with 72 receptions for 1,283 yards and seven scores, while ranking third nationally in receiving yards and fifth in yards per outing. He’s recorded 100 or more yards in six contests this fall, highlighted by a season-best 174 on 11 receptions in a victory over Georgia Southern, while leading the team in the category in all 11 games thus far this fall and 15 straight contests dating back to last season’s meeting at Louisiana.
The junior has either set or tied eight school records this year, including most catches in a game, receptions, receiving yards and 100-yard games in a season, and catches, yards receiving, touchdown receptions and 100-yard contests in a career. He goes into Friday’s match-up versus Coastal Carolina having caught 168 balls for 2,949 yards and 21 scores in 46 appearances since the start of the 2018 campaign.
A first-team all-Sun Belt selection last season, Tolbert was a candidate for Maxwell and Biletnikoff Awards — presented to the outstanding player and receiver, respectively, in college football — earlier this season, and he is currently one of two players in the country who has posted over 1,000 yards receiving in each of the last seasons.
Being a local player and having had the success that he has had for his hometown program has meant a lot to Tolbert and validates one of the main reasons he chose to remain loyal to South at the beginning of this journey.
“It shows them that they don’t have to go far off to a school in order to have success and be recognized. They can stay here in Mobile and play at South,” Tolbert said. “All they have to do is put in the work and the coaches will put them in the right position and right situation. We have an awesome staff around us here. Everybody understands and knows the goals, both personal and team. If you put those two together, you’ll have a lot of success. It’s big for the program to have had a local player like myself to have stayed here. Look at what happened to him, this could be you. That’s something big that can help turn the program around. I can have the feeling that I helped turn the program around whether I’m here or not.”
Wommack echoes the same sentiments, and what the importance of Tolbet’s decision to play at South and the ramifications that his success can lead to in the building of the program.
“Mobile is special, especially when it comes to the talent that is in this area — we have to take advantage of that,” he said. “Jalen was one of the first players who Power 5 offers. He had an opportunity to go play in a conference that maybe is a little bit higher level and yet he chose to stay in Mobile, he chose to build something at South Alabama. Him laying the foundation for what we’re trying to build here for years to come is really important.
“I don’t have to sell the vision of what that’s supposed to look like, I can now point to a young man that actually accomplished that vision from this city, came to South Alabama and is now following his dreams in the Senior Bowl and onto the NFL.”
As his time with the Jags begins to wind down, Tolbert received one more honor as last week he became just the eighth player in the program’s 13-year history to earn an opportunity to participate in the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
“It was definitely a surreal moment, especially with my parents being able to be there and the way that they surprised me,” Tolbert said. “It’s definitely special. My dad actually had some pictures printed out — whenever I got the invite — of me at all of the senior bowls. You can tell my age growing up each year, it’s crazy that I’ve been to all of them from Dexter McCluster with Tim Tebow to all these guys that came down here and played. For me to have the chance to represent the university and my hometown in that game is special, I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
So where does his loyalty come from?
“My mom and dad were big on if you start something, don’t quit it,” Tolbert said. “Everything happens for a reason. You don’t have to run from things. No matter who came into coach the program, I was still going to have to show the same thing if I was to leave. I would still have to prove myself in either situation. Something my dad had always told me was that, ‘If you’re good enough, it doesn’t really matter where you play. There are opportunities, you just have to make the most of those opportunities when you get them.’
“I always thought about that. Why get up and go here or there, just show people that South is a good program. I wanted to help make history at South and for myself, rather than going some other place and just being a number.”
Regardless of the result in South’s regular-season finale, by staying loyal, faithful and true to his hometown school the Jaguar football program will be impacted by Jalen Tolbert for years to come.
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