Jaleel McLaughlin: The Greatest Collegiate Running Back You’ve Never Heard Of

Homelessness, familial loss, and self-doubt clouded Jaleel McLaughlin's future. But the view from his new home atop the NCAA record books couldn't be clearer.

At 5’7 3/4″, Jaleel McLaughlin is used to getting overlooked. For a while, he even overlooked himself. But now, sitting atop the NCAA record books, there’s no denying the legacy he’s forged. The best part: McLaughlin isn’t done yet, with the chance to realize his dream of being chosen in the NFL draft just around the corner.

Jaleel McLaughlin’s Path to the Draft

56 collegiate games. 1,250 rushing attempts. An NCAA all-time record 8,166 rushing yards. And 79 rushing touchdowns. For those keeping count, that’s 145.8 yards and 1.4 TDs per game. That’s quite literally unheard-of production for an entire career, especially spanning that many games.

And yet, it almost never happened.

A native of Marshville, North Carolina, McLaughlin first hit the gridiron when he was five or six. Yet, basketball was his first love, and track would also play a pivotal role. Jaleel’s mother, Tonya McLaughlin, wanted to keep him active and healthy, but even she couldn’t have known how important sports would be to her son’s life.

During Jaleel’s middle school years, Tonya was laid off from a factory job she had held for 10 years. As a single parent with two young boys to raise (Jaleel and Jayshawn — three years older), she couldn’t afford their apartment, forcing the family to bounce between relatives, motels, and hotels.

But McLaughlin’s hardships didn’t cease there. His cousin, role model, and football inspiration, Lavelle Sloan, succumbed to a brain tumor, and his grandmother passed away following a heart attack. If those losses weren’t hard enough, McLaughlin was living in his grandmother’s house at the time, and when she passed, they lost it.

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Eventually, the situation got to the extent that they lived out of a four-door Ford Focus, rendering them homeless for several months. Despite their domestic circumstances, Tonya did everything she could to ensure Jaleel didn’t miss a practice or game, allowing him to find solace in a stable force: sports. And for Jaleel, a fire was lit that still burns fiercely today.

In an interview with Pro Football Network, McLaughlin described how his bout with homelessness altered his perspective:

“It’s something that inspired me to work harder — inspired me to get up and do as much as I can to see a smile on my mom’s face out there on the court, football field, track, or even in the classroom.

“We all go through adversity, you know. It’s how you respond. It’s not why you’re going through it at the time. Don’t put your head down. Use it as motivation to fuel you, and that’s what I did.”

2014 Forest Hills Drive

With stability at home, McLaughlin began his first year of high school at Forest Hills in 2014 (sadly of no relation to rapper J. Cole’s legendary album).

While he had the full support of his mother, there were times when McLaughlin was unsure of himself. He’d step on the field or court and question whether he should be there. When asked what advice he’d offer his younger self, McLaughlin had a short but powerful message: “Believe in yourself.”

“A lot of times, I wanted to believe in myself more. Now I’m at that level where I actually believe 100% in myself.”

Yet, his reign of dominance didn’t materialize immediately. After being promoted to the varsity basketball team as a sophomore, McLaughlin didn’t see much on-court action. It got to the point that his mother asked if he wanted to transfer to a different school. But that’s not how McLaughlin’s built.

“I don’t want to run from a situation. I want to face the situation. I want to see how I can get better.”

So, McLaughlin asked head coach Matt Sides what he needed to do to see the hardwood, and his response was a harsh reality: “You have to get better.” As he did with everything in life, McLaughlin took the advice and ran with it.

Forest Hills made the Elite 8 his junior year before ultimately winning the state championship in his senior campaign — one of the lone basketball titles in the school’s history.

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But McLaughlin’s success extended beyond the court, as he brought home two more state championships on the track. While he couldn’t reach such heights on the football field, it wasn’t for lack of talent. Still, Mclaughlin’s recruiting trail ran cold, with DII programs providing his only collegiate interest.

What’s worse, most wanted him to convert from running back to the defensive backfield, likely due to his height. And on the night he prepared to commit to Charleston University, they also asked him to make the switch — a request he politely declined.

However, one school wanted to hand him the rock: Notre Dame College. Head coach Mike Jacobs (now HC at Lenoir-Rhyne) recalled their recruitment process for McLaughlin:

“We have a rule. If the first minute of a highlight tape is touchdowns, you have to recruit him. When we got a chance to see him in person, he was playing basketball. We saw him shut down a DI prospect.”

That DI prospect? Current Clemson 6’8″ forward and future NBA prospect Hunter Tyson. McLaughlin remembered the game well, laughing while not disagreeing with Jacobs’ view of his performance against his opponent.

“It don’t matter if it was on a basketball court, the football field, or on the track — I wanted to be the best.”

Notre Dame College DII Coup

Before his first collegiate game, McLaughlin received a text from his high school head football coach Corey Smith: “Who you are is good enough.” The message resonated with McLaughlin — so much that he writes it down before every contest.

“I don’t want to be anything more or anything less. I want to just go out there and be myself — play my game because all of the hard work is put in.”

Well, McLaughlin certainly played his game at Notre Dame College, and you don’t need to see highlights to determine he was the definition of different. He became the first player at any NCAA level to rush for 2,400+ yards in back-to-back seasons, setting multiple DII and school records.

As a result, he was a two-time finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy (DII’s equivalent to the Heisman), although one could argue he should’ve won it at least once.

Regardless, there wasn’t much more for McLaughlin to achieve on the DII circuit after his sophomore season. Thus, he entered the transfer portal — only, this wasn’t the portal we know today. In 2020, the rule that allowed athletes to play immediately for their new program was not in effect. And the onset of COVID began to cloud the future of the upcoming season.

“I was just taking a shot because I didn’t want to live with any regret of ‘you could have played at the highest level possible in college, and you didn’t take that chance.’ I felt like I had achieved everything I could at Notre Dame College, and I didn’t want to stay; I wanted to rise, and that’s what I did.”

That shot led McLaughlin to Youngstown State. There, he didn’t just rise — he soared to NCAA immortality.

Dominating the SEC of the FCS at Youngstown State

McLaughlin’s transfer to YSU marked a significant growth in his on-field ability — which ironically began off of it.

“I came inside the meeting room for the first time at Youngstown State. And I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are really, really smart, not only athletic. They’re really, really smart.’ My biggest step going from Notre Dame College to Youngstown State was becoming smarter with the game. … I would definitely say the Missouri Valley Football Conference is a tough place to play.”

The MVFC is often referred to as the “SEC of the FCS,” and for good reason. Powerhouses North Dakota State and South Dakota State are mainstays in the FCS playoffs, but Northern Iowa, North Dakota, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, and Missouri State are also formidable opponents.

However, facing improved competition did exactly what McLaughlin hoped it would: make him a better player. It forced the star running back to augment his physical ability with an enhanced understanding of the game. And that started with watching film — something he didn’t do much of at Notre Dame College because he simply didn’t need to.

“I actually started to watch a little bit too much film, so I had to cut back a little bit because there were times when in the game, sometimes things just happen a little differently than you saw on film.

“I was missing a cut because I was already thinking, ‘OK, this is how it’s gonna be because I just watched their past seven games, and they did this.’ So I definitely had to cut back from watching film a little bit to about an hour and 30 minutes a day.”

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McLaughlin learned the important lesson of “sometimes, less is more,” and it translated to the field. In his last two seasons at YSU, he recorded nearly the same number of games with fewer than 100 rushing yards (seven) as he did with 200 or more (five).

Youngstown State HC Doug Phillips obviously recognized the icon living in his backfield, and so did opposing teams. “You have to be disciplined on defense. If not, Jaleel will make you pay,” Phillips said. “Often after games, coaches will greet me and say, ‘That No. 8 [McLaughlin] is special.'”

In the second-to-last contest of his career, McLaughlin was 219 rushing yards away from etching his name to the NCAA record books. So what did he do? Rush for 227 on just 28 carries against Missouri State. Yet, McLaughlin didn’t want the record to massage his ego or showcase his unmistakable talent.

“The offensive line came in day in and day out since Day 1 like, ‘man, we’re going to get you this record, and we want to be a part of it.’ They worked hard to do it. They worked hard to get me that record. I’m really, really thankful for those guys. … I didn’t want to let those guys down.”

Next Stop: The 2023 NFL Draft

As he did at Notre Dame College, McLaughin checked nearly every box he could at Youngstown, even earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Now it was time to set his sights on a new challenge.

McLaughlin garnered an invite to the Hula Bowl, allowing him to work with professional coaches and showcase his skill set to NFL scouts. But he also took advantage of the presence of an unexpected attendee: Devin “Anytime” Hester.

“Constant repetition. Devin Hester told me, ‘work as hard as you can at your craft — put in hours, put in time, and it’s going to become easy for you.'”

One of the greatest returners in NFL history didn’t achieve that label by just being talented. In the league, everyone is talented — the difference often comes down to work ethic. And if there is one thing we know about McLaughlin, it’s that we never have to question his.

Next up: YSU’s Pro Day on March 24 at 9 a.m. Despite my best efforts at coaxing a projected 40-time from one of the most electric backs in the class, McLaughlin smiled and said, “It’s going to be a show for sure. … You just have to wait and see.”

As the interview drew to a close, I handed it off to McLaughlin to send a message to NFL fans and decision-makers. And unsurprisingly, he took it for a touchdown.

“On the field, [fans] are going to get everything I got each and every play. I don’t take plays off. You’re going to get a competitor, a very explosive running back, and someone who wants to win. [As for coaches and GMs], I’m a family-type guy. I’m going to work as hard as I can. ‘How can I be the best teammate for my brother.’ It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.”

McLaughlin isn’t just the greatest collegiate running back you’ve never heard of — he’s a beacon of inspiration. With his effervescent personality, unrelenting determination, and support from those along the way, McLaughlin’s upgraded his view of the NFL from the back of a Ford Focus to the NCAA’s mountaintop. And that view is about to become his backdrop.

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