BALTIMORE – At a time when NFL teams are trying to dissect and rattle and challenge the top college football talent in the country, Josh Jacobs appears, well, almost comfortable.
Comfortable in his ability and personality. Comfortable that he can make a strong impression on the coaches and general managers he meets with. Comfortable that the dramatic odds he has already overcome at such a young age have prepared him to overcome the various hurdles put in front of him. So these next two weeks before the NFL Draft – filled with more pressure-packed visits to NFL teams and frequent phone calls from unusual numbers and all of the pre-draft smoke and subterfuge that has become part of this silly news-cycle – aren't going to faze him much, I don't reckon, as it becomes ever-apparent that he is the top running back in this draft and NFL teams are as comfortable with him as he is with this often-backwards process.
"No stress," Jacobs told me over a delicious seafood lunch on Friday, wrapping up a few days spent visiting with the Ravens. "I try not to over-think things. I try to just go with the flow. It's going to go down how it's meant to be, regardless, so I'm just going to let it play out."
If anything, the potentially-nerve racking time from the end of Alabama's season until now has reinforced Jacobs's self-belief, his confidence, and his eagerness to provide for his young son after spending parts of his youth without a place to call home. That time, with his father and four siblings, bouncing from hotel room to hotel room, sleeping in cramped quarters, wondering where the next meal and bed were coming from is never that far from his heart and mind. Jacobs, 21, has a unique perspective on where he stands now – on the precipice of being a first-round pick with new worlds of riches and opportunity ahead – and if anything, is relishing being whisked from NFL city to NFL city, getting to stay in swanky hotels and hobnobbing with bigwigs before they set their draft boards for good and Jacobs and his family head to Nashville to partake in it all first-hand.
"I think back to growing up a lot, especially when I am making these trips or talking to these teams," Jacobs said. "That's probably when I think about it the most. Sometimes before I go to sleep, I think about how really blessed I am to have this opportunity and be in this position."
It is a long way from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Jacobs and his father and four siblings persevered despite very tough times. He was a late bloomer, well off the recruiting radar for much of his high school years, where he had an unsettled home life and things on his mind beyond football and classwork. Despite an already loaded backfield, and the steepest competition in the country, the "three-star" running back chose Alabama. He wanted to be around the very best, and managed to pile up nearly 600 yards on just 85 rushes as a freshman, saw a smaller workload in 2017 as the Crimson Tide won the national title, and then carried 120 times (for over five yards a carry) with 14 touchdowns, adding 20 receptions including three more scores last year, establishing his first-round credentials which he has only reinforced in his face-to-face meetings with teams.
So much has changed for Jacobs in a short period of time. Yet, in terms of his bonds with his family and their interpersonal dynamics, not much has changed at all.
"It's funny, because even now it's kind of the same," Jacobs said. "We always joked around, and we still joke around and have fun. It's a little different because right now I can't see them as much, but when we do talk, it's like catching up. But they act the same, mostly, and I act the same."
Being himself, and telling his story, is serving Jacobs just fine.
Teams have been gushing over him since the combine.
"I absolutely love that kid," one NFL GM told me back in Indianapolis. "I want him in my locker room and we don't even really need a running back."
Coaches rally behind him. He is the kind of prospect scouts bang on the table for. Easy to root for, and very clean from an attitudinal, off-field and medical standpoint.
"All the feedback is consistent – they love him," said Chad Wiestling, Jacobs' agent. "They love him on film – running the ball making plays, running people over, and catching the ball.
"And Coach (Nick) Saban said it best – never once has he asked to come out of the game. He's out there returning kickoffs and covering kickoffs. That's very rare in the game today, especially with elite players. The NFL teams are impressed with that, and then once they talk to him and sit down and talk with him, the game's over. This guy is special. Being through what he went through growing up, to be here now, they are all blown away by him. There's no doubt he's the top back in this draft. It's not even close."
In general, these are trying times for NFL running backs, with even star players having difficulty establishing new salary thresholds for the position. Le'Veon Bell just sat out a year to get off the franchise tag – most would say he lost $15M in the process he might never see again.
Jacobs isn't letting any of that steal his joy. And, fact is, not much of it may apply to him, anyway. At a time when NFL clubs are going to running back rotations and increased specialization, Jacobs is seen as a do-everything guy. He can help on all three downs, whether running for tough yards or running outside the tackle box or catching passes or aiding the quarterback in pass protection (to say nothing of his prowess in the return game and on special teams coverage units).
"Every team that I've met with has said they want to use me on every down," Jacobs said. "They can see that I'm not afraid to block and can see I can run routes and obviously I can run the ball. So it's going to be fun to see how they utilize me. Maybe it will be like Alabama where they had me in the slot sometimes. We'll see."
In recent years, some NFL teams have had trepidation about a few Alabama products, given the nature of the program. They play more games than almost anyone else, competing for a national title every year, and Nick Saban practices them hard and the work-loads can be intense, leading to injuries and wear and tear. Again, not the case with Jacobs who was bled in judiciously, leaving him fresh and spry and something of a blank slate for NFL teams to begin tapping into.
"All the teams bring that up, too, and they all say that it's a positive thing," Jacobs said. "Low tread. And especially for running backs now, it's huge. So a lot of teams want to use me in a lot of different ways. I can't wait to get my foot in the door."
Jacobs took his first visit last week to Baltimore – where Alabama legend Ozzie Newsome just relinquished GM duties but remains heavily involved, and has made a career out of drafting Crimson Tide players. (The Ravens recently signed former Alabama runner Mark Ingram, but are very much in the market for more help and Jacobs said he and Ingram have already chatted about how cool it would be to share a backfield in 2019). Jacobs went back to Alabama for an event last weekend and then will visit the Eagles and Colts this week before returning to Alabama this weekend to hold his first football camp for kids. "Football has given me a platform to do the things I really want to do like give back to kids and my community," Jacobs said. "That's the biggest blessing of it all."
As you might expect by now, Jacobs is soaking this all up.
On Thursday, after his meeting ended with the Ravens, he and Wiestling, a Baltimore resident, went to Camden Yards for Orioles opening day, and on Friday Jacobs looked every bit the part of a local when I met him for lunch at Jimmy's Famous Seafood, a hub for Ravens players and local athletes. Jacobs didn't shy away from the softshell crabs or a crabcake sandwich (on a Kaiser roll with lettuce and tomato, no condiments necessary like a true Baltimorean) and fit right in during a bustling Lenten Friday crowd.
He is trying to absorb in some local flavor as he visits these cities for the first time and isn't pouring over rosters to check how crowded their backfield may be. What's the difference? His future is in the hands of others right now, anyway.
"I don't do that, because I feel like that's just going to add stress to me," Jacobs said. "So I just go in and go with the flow. I will definitely think about that when I actually get drafted by a team. But I know how it works, and I like to compete."
Jacobs isn't obsessing about when he will be selected and where he will next be playing. He isn't spending much time day-dreaming about draft night will be like, because, well, for one thing, he hasn't spent any time watching the draft in the past (despite having his Alabama teammate comprise almost an entire NFL roster themselves since he's been on campus). He is comparing notes along the way with Alabama teammates Quinnen Williams and Irv Smith (also about to be drafted) along the way, but that's about the extent of it.
"I feel like I might get in trouble for this, but I've never actually watched the draft," Jacobs said, taking a pronounced pause before answering, despite there being no shame in this confession. "I don't know how it actually works. It's going to be all new to me, actually. I've seen pictures of guys in suits and all of that, but I've never actually watched it. So I'm just going to enjoy the process and the whole experience."
Trust me, he is. As he should be.