MACON, Ga. — Most people who watch Jaylon Barden play see him as a speed receiver. He ran track until he was in ninth grade, and was a home run threat in Westside High School’s offense, where he caught 15 touchdown passes in his senior season.
But the 6-foot 180-pound Pitt commit has a lot more to his game than just speed. In fact, it’s the other side of being a receiver that he takes pride in.
“I think they (people) just look at the deep threat,” Barden said about how people view his game. “But I pride myself on the route running to make me get open. I say in my head that if I didn’t have speed, all I would have to do is run this route perfectly, and I can get open. Like (Minnesota Vikings receiver) Adam Thielen. He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but his route running creates separation.”
Thielen is one of many guys Barden likes to study and try to apply to his own game. But of all the football he watches and all the time he spends studying tape, three receivers stand out to him.
“I like (Philadelphia Eagles receiver) DeSean Jackson, (former Penn State receiver) K.J. Hamler and (retired NFL receiver) Devin Hester,” Barden said. “Those are the ones I modeled myself after.”
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Between Jackson and Hester there are 23 seasons of NFL experience and over 13,000 receiving yards, with Hamler looking to add to that soon as a member of the 2020 NFL Draft class. So what is it about this trio that Barden likes so much and wants to emulate when he gets to Pitt? It’s a different component for each receiver.
“Devin Hester, he’s the punt returner king,” Barden said. “I’d like to be something like that. I did punt returns and kick returns here (Westside). DeSean Jackson, he’s the deep threat, and I’m a deep threat. I model him for that. And K.J. Hamler, he’s the route runner. I take pride in route running.”
And on the topic of route running, Barden has two routes that stand out in the playbook as specialties in his game.
“I like the comeback route and the post route,” Barden said. “The post route, 10 yards and stick it towards the pylon. The comeback route, sell it like you’re running a go (route) and then come back.”
His speed is still as strong as it ever has been though, and he credits a lot of that to his days running track.
“A lot of people don’t know that if your arms lined up straight, you can run a lot faster just off your form of running,” Barden said.
The combination of that track speed and those routes he loves running—along with the rest of Westside’s playbook—helped Barden win the 2018 Georgia Coaches Association MVP of the Year award in his junior season. He followed that by stacking up 1,094 yards in his senior season, earning him a selection on the All-Middle Georgia first-team.
Barden received offers from 20 programs, and the interest in him only grew as he racked up the accolades at Westside. But his relationship at Pitt went back long before the big numbers in the back half of his high school career, and that went a long way towards his commitment to the Panthers.
“Coach Archie (Collins) found me my eighth-grade year,” Barden said. “My eighth-grade year, I was like 160 pounds. He came back in my tenth-grade year and said if I was 180, he was going to come back to offer me. So he came back that year, and I was 180, and he offered me on the spot.”
With a relationship that was in place before he even started his high school career, Barden took his official visit to Pittsburgh, where he knew that he was in the right place.
“They treated me like a family,” Barden said about what sold him during the visit. “When I walked around, everyone was just like ‘Jaylon, Jaylon!’ Iit was like they knew me. Everybody gets treated like a family, and that was another reason why.”
The relationship Barden has with the coaching staff is not where it ends for Barden’s Pitt connections. The Panthers have two other Georgia recruits in this class, one of them being cornerback Rashad Battle. The two had a matchup in summer 7-on-7 football, and Barden used that to his advantage in helping to get Battle to join him at Pitt.
“He played on Hustle Inc.,” Barden said. “I played on Cam Newton’s 7-on-7 team. It’s a 7-on-7 thing we have going on in the summer, and Cam Newton was the actual coach. He actually coached us. And Hustle Inc., his name is Tony (Ballard), he owns that. We are the biggest two teams in Georgia, and we faced each other. Rashad did pretty good. He was on the other receiver, but I was on the other side. I was kind of more in the slot in 7-on-7. At Pitt I’m going to be playing a little more on the outside, the Z (receiver).”
“I talked to Rashad, and was very happy about committing. I kind of persuaded him into committing, too. Before he committed, I was saying that ‘You know how we play, and I’ve seen how you kind of play,’ and he caught like two or three picks on us. And supposedly our quarterback was supposed to be good. Tate Rodemaker, he went to Florida State. He’s a good quarterback, and he threw three picks to Rashad. I had obviously seen he was a good corner, so I was like ‘Come to Pitt!’
So what’s the goal at Pitt for a guy who is always trying to make himself more like NFL receivers and was coached by an NFL quarterback in 7-on-7 football? As always for Barden, he has his eyes on making it all the way to the league.
“I just have to go in there and grind,” Barden said. “I have to do what I have to do, and I could easily go to the NFL in coach (Mark) Whipple’s offense.”