South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert shows he’s an elite receiver at the Senior Bowl
Jalen Tolbert is one of five players from Mobile and Baldwin counties in Reese’s Senior Bowl this year, but he’s more comfortable than most.
Tolbert, a former McGill-Toolen standout, is not only playing in his hometown for the game, but also at his local stadium. The South Alabama star receiver will be fit for Team USA in Saturday’s Senior Bowl, which takes place at Hancock Whitney Stadium on the USA campus.
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“I love the opportunity, I love the competition, I bond with all these guys everywhere,” Tolbert said. “We just keep growing together. … I’m staying at the (team’s) hotel. I don’t even have my car here. I live everything.
Tolbert shattered all major program single-season and career records in his time at South Alabama, finishing with 178 catches for 3,140 yards (second in Sun Belt Conference history) and 22 touchdowns in just three seasons as a that leaving. His 2021 numbers included 82 receptions, 1,474 yards and eight scores, averaging 18 yards per catch.
Individual honors also came for Tolbert. He was twice named a first-team All-Sun Belt and was named the league’s 2021 Offensive Player of the Year.
He’s done all of this despite near-constant double coverage in 2021 and with sometimes inconsistent quarterback play. Starting quarterback Jake Bentley missed two games and most of another with a season-ending knee injury, but Tolbert’s numbers hardly suffered.
He had a memorable night as an individual in a loss to Tennessee on Nov. 20, catching seven passes for 143 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown. It’s that kind of performance against high-level competition that Tolbert hopes to build on this week on Mobile.
“I just want to keep working and keep showing that I’m the best receiver,” Tolbert said. “I think one thing they question is my level of competition, so whoever lines up ahead of me, I just have to go out there, make the most of it and make plays, and keep competing.”
If there are any questions about Tolbert next level, it’s that he doesn’t possess breakthrough speed and sometimes has lapses in focus that lead to crashes. He also didn’t face elite defenses week after week in the Sun Belt conference, like many of his Senior Bowl counterparts from Power 5 schools.
Nonetheless, he seems to be doing well in both team and individual drills during Senior Bowl practice. He appeared on more than a few highlights posted online during the week.
“I think everything went well,” Tolbert said. “I’m more of a perfectionist; I am very hard on myself. Some things I wanted to do more of, maybe just understand the playbook a bit more. I got most of the time, but I want to be perfect. I just have to keep working.
“I wouldn’t say it’s very different (from the Sun Belt), but in terms of coverage, it’s different. I saw a lot of different coverage when I was in South Alabama. Here they play the press man, and that’s what we want as receivers. We like one-on-one competition. (In southern Alabama) I’ve seen a lot of (area) coverage 2, cover 3, some quarters.
Tolbert checked in at 6-foot-1¼ and 195 pounds at the Senior Bowl weigh-in, shorter than South Alabama’s (6-3) listed, but a bit heavier than his listed 190. Tolbert looks noticeably thicker through the midsection than he did during his days in southern Alabama.
After the Senior Bowl, Tolbert will travel to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine in early March. Heading into this week, he was projected as a top 100 pick in the April draft, chosen to be removed from the draw by the end of the third round at the latest.
Until then, he’s using his time to show what he can do among NFL scouts and talent evaluators in his hometown. He was also able to catch a trio of other Mobile-area high school products who are also on the national team: Williamson’s Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary, Murphy’s LSU defensive tackle Neil Farrell and wide receiver of Tennessee Velus Jones of Saraland (a fifth local player, Boston College tight end Trae Berry of Spanish Fort, was added to the Senior Bowl roster on Thursday morning).
“It’s awesome,” Tolbert said. “I love these guys. Two of them train where I train (in South Florida). Seeing them chasing their dreams and we’re all from here and living it together is very special.
The 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Hancock Whitney Stadium. The game will be televised live via NFL Network.