Scouting Combine Receivers: Jefferson and Touchdown Machines
Part 3 of our six-part preview includes LSU’s Justin Jefferson, Penn State’s K.J. Hamler and the towering trio of Clemson’s Tee Higgins, Oregon State’s Isaiah Hodgins and Mississippi State’s Stephen Guidry.
Stephen Guidry, Mississippi State (6-4, 200): Guidry caught 49 passes for 827 yards and eight touchdowns in two seasons, including 30 receptions for 387 yards (12.9 average) and five scores as a senior.
Guidry spent a redshirt year at McNeese State and two years at Hinds (Miss.) Community College, where he emerged as the No. 1 junior-college receiver prospect. However, a shoulder injury and questionable attitude stunted his development. He was surprised by the level of competition in the SEC. “I didn’t really think it was going to be that competitive but as my first year went by, I saw that it was,” Guidry told DJournal.com before his final season. “I wasn’t really satisfied with how my year went. I feel like this is my year though. I’m more into it now, more so than I was last year.” The team stuck by him and he stuck with the team, leading to a strong senior campaign. “It means more to know that I have people behind my back, behind me,” Guidry told the Clarion Ledger. Guidry grew up in New Rose, La., with his mom working long days to feed Guidry and her sister. “When I tell you I literally did everything I could to make sure he had everything … there was nothing that he needed or wanted that I didn’t try to help with,” the sister, Alashia Jones, told USA Today. “He used to tell me, ‘I can’t get up like this anymore,’ and ‘it’s hard.’ I told him, you can never give up. That’s not an option. You’re too talented to throw in the towel.”
K.J. Hamler, Penn State* (5-9, 176): Hamler was honorable-mention all-Big Ten as a receiver and returner as a redshirt sophomore, when he caught 56 passes for 904 yards (16.1 average) with eight touchdowns and averaged 21.4 yards per kickoff return and 5.5 yards per punt return. He averaged 18.0 yards per catch and 26.2 yards per kickoff return in 2018. He had a catch of 20-plus yards in 15 of his final 16 career games. In 2019, he had 17 catches of 20 or more yards, eight catches of 30-plus yards, five catches of 40-plus yards and three catches of 50-plus yards. Hamler missed his senior season in high school with a torn ACL and redshirted at Penn State in 2016.
Hamler’s father started training his son at age 4. As noted in Sports Illustrated: Little KJ maneuvered among cones in the backyard, climbed up hills down the street and even ran with a parachute attached to him, his mother says. KJ was an avid lacrosse player, ran track and tried basketball. The latter didn’t work. “He was too fast,” says mom Latonya Hamler, “he always double-dribbled because he out ran the ball.” He is supremely confident in his speed, as shown late in a game against Appalachian State in 2018. With the Nittany Lions staring at a major upset loss, he defied the coaches, took a kickoff out of the end zone and returned it 52 yards. “I was very tired of taking a knee,” Hamler told the school newspaper. “I kept asking coach, ‘Can I take it out? Can I take it out?’ He just told me to follow the rules. I respected his decision, but when it came down to it, and I saw two minutes on the clock, I just took it out. I didn’t follow the rules.”
With that speed comes a nickname. “We always call him the ‘Human Joystick.’ He laughs. It’s kind of funny — but I think it fits,” fellow receiver Brandon Polk told Centre Daily. Hamler is from Pontiac, Mich. He got a dose of reality when he was 6. He was riding his bike when a car stopped next to him and someone pulled out a gun. “I didn't know if it was a BB gun or a real one,” he told the York Daily Record. “I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I’m young and the BB guns, you see the orange tip and there wasn’t an orange tip on it, so I froze. But it was like the dude in the car was playing a joke, being a funny.” What wasn’t funny was two of his friends were murdered before his senior year of high school.
Tee Higgins, Clemson* (6-4, 215): Higgins had a monster final season with 59 receptions for 1,167 yards and 13 touchdowns. He average 19.8 yards per catch. As a sophomore, he caught 59 passes for 936 yards and 12 scores.
At Oak Ridge (Tenn.) High School, he was Tennessee’s Mr. Football and a finalist for Mr. Basketball. His high school coach used simple math to persuade Higgins to concentrate on football. “Those guys are dime a dozen. They’re all over the place. But you take a 6-3 wide receiver who can do what you can do as a sophomore in high school, and you really have an opportunity that you don’t even understand yet: to play big-time college football and beyond.”
He has listened and learned from his mom, whose voice can be heard over the 80,000 cheering at Clemson games. “I always talked to him about how blessed he is from God,” his mom, Camillia Stewart, said. “The talent that he has, if he doesn't treat it with respect, God can easily take that away.” She would know. She could have played college basketball and become a nurse but lost it all due to a drug addiction. “I found myself on the wrong side of the tracks. I can't blame anybody but myself, but I was around people I shouldn't have been. It looked like they were having fun, so I wanted to have fun with them.” His football career began because of Hot Wheels.
John Hightower, Boise State (6-2, 172): As was the case with Mississippi State’s Stephen Guidry, Hightower spent two seasons at Hinds (Miss.) Community College. At Boise, he caught 31 passes for 504 yards (16.3 average) and six touchdowns and a 20.1-yard average on kickoff returns as a junior. As a senior, he caught 51 passes for 943 yards (18.5 average) and eight touchdowns and averaged 24.6 yards per kickoff return with one touchdown.
Hightower was ruled academically ineligible for the bowl game following the 2018 season but got his grades and career back on track. “He’s become a better teammate. He’s become a better leader on our team, and then because of that I think he’s experiencing success because he’s handling himself the right way,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin told the Idaho Statesman. “You wake up in the morning and you know you’re doing things right and you know you’re taking care of business, then you can go out there and you can perform at whatever it is you want to do. It happens to be football for him, and he’s really good at it.” He has a passion for riding dirt bikes – right down to a “Bike Life” tattoo.
At Hinds, he finished fourth in the 400-meter hurdles at the junior college national championships. In fact, he went to Hinds to run track instead of playing football. He tried out for the football team in 2015. “Once I got there I talked to my mom and told her I couldn’t just run track, so I told her I would try out for the football team,” Hightower told the Idaho Press. “And my first year trying out for the football team I didn’t make it, so I ran track another year and the second year I made it.”
K.J. Hill, Ohio State (6-0, 195): Hill had three banner seasons to finish his career with the school record for career receptions. He caught 56 passes as a sophomore, career highs of 70 passes for 885 yards as a junior and 57 passes (for 636 yards) and a career-high 10 touchdowns as a senior. That gave him a four-year total of 201 receptions for 2,332 yards and 20 touchdowns. He had a career average of 5.6 yards on punt returns.
Hill caught at least one pass in every game over his final three-and-a-half seasons. “I just feel like I did what I’m supposed to do: That’s catch the ball,” Hill told Lettermen Row. “The ball comes my way, I’ve got to catch it. And I did a good job with that, not even knowing I caught a pass in every game since 2016. I’m just doing everything trying to help the team in any way. And my job is to catch the ball and make big plays. I just try to do that.” Hill grew up in Little Rock, Ark., but spurned his home-state team to play for Ohio State. Why? Former Buckeyes receivers coach Zach Smith said then-Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called to say Hill was canceling his visit to Ohio State. Why would a rival coach say that? “We got K.J on the phone, got his dad on the phone,” Smith told 247Sports.com. “They were irately pissed at Arkansas. ‘You don’t speak for my son, you don’t speak for me.’ He came on his visit and basically he was done with Arkansas.” During recruiting, it was all about the shoes. As in Nike shoes. "I'm not going to the name of the school, but I said I couldn't go to the school because they wear Under Armor," Hill told Cleveland.com. "For me, that's what it was because I know that if I don't feel good, then I can't play good. That was one of my biggest nags in recruiting.” Making plays was “like a drug,” his high school coach told Lettermen Row.
Isaiah Hodgins, Oregon State* (6-4, 209): In three seasons, Hodgins caught 176 passes for 2,322 yards and 20 touchdowns; all three of those figures rank in the top seven in school history. He had a big-time 2019 with 86 catches for 1,171 yards (13.6 average) and 13 touchdowns to earn first-team all-conference.
His brother, Isaac, is a defensive lineman with the Beavers who will be a junior in 2020. His father, James, was a longtime NFL fullback for the Cardinals and Jets and won a Super Bowl with the Rams. "After Isaiah made the decision to go to Oregon State, I didn't know if Isaac would follow suit," James Hodgins told the Portland Tribune. "But deep down, they grew up hoping they would play at the same place. They wanted to form a legacy at a university together the way the Rodgers brothers did at Oregon State.” Despite the genetics, Isaiah was not a natural. “My first year playing football I was the worst on the team, and after I just kept working on drills with my dad,” he told the Daily Barometer. That’s a story his father confirmed to OregonLive.com. He was “literally the worst player on our team.”
Trishton Jackson, Syracuse* (6-1, 191): Jackson caught 17 passes for Michigan State in 2016 and 2017 before transferring to Syracuse. An NCAA transfer means a player can’t play in a game for 12 months. Jackson was eligible for Syracuse’s bowl game in 2018 and caught three passes for 27 yards and one touchdown. That set the stage for a monster 2019 of 66 receptions for 1,023 yards (15.5 average) and 11 touchdowns.
The Michigan native transferred due in part to playing time but also due to being close to home. “I had faith that when I’d come here I’d be more focused,” Jackson told the Daily Orange. “I wouldn’t be too close to home. I wouldn’t want to call Mom everyday, stuff like that. I would have to grow up and mature as a man. And I think I’ve been doing a really good job of doing that.” He considered walking on the Syracuse basketball team. Jackson has three brothers. One of them, Obbie, was a defensive back at Western Michigan. A cousin, Braylon Edwards, was an All-American receiver at Michigan and nine-year NFL pro. In turning pro, Jackson is training with Edwards’ dad and eating food prepared by the chef of the U.S. women’s soccer team. His girlfriend, Syracuse basketball player Tiana Mangakahia, has breast cancer. In an emotional experience, he cut her hair as she battled through chemotherapy. “The mental toughness that any coach tries to get out of us, it really shows with Tiana,” Jackson told Syracuse.com. “Me seeing that every day pushes me to be a better leader on the field and to be tougher mentally because I go through things with Tiana that I never thought I would experience.”
Justin Jefferson, LSU* (6-3, 192): Jefferson went from zero catches as a freshman to 54 as a sophomore to 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. In his final three games, Jefferson was dominant. In the SEC Championship Game, he caught seven passes for 115 yards and one touchdown. In the national semifinals, he had a day for the ages with 14 receptions for 227 yards and four touchdowns against Oklahoma. In the national championship, he caught nine balls for 106 yards against Clemson.
The native of St. Rose, La., is the third of the Jefferson brothers to play football at LSU, joining older brothers Jordan and Rickey. All three started during their career. Jordan played quarterback for LSU from 2008 through 2011 and Rickey played in the secondary from 2013 through 2016. “He’s playing freshman ball, but he’s got Jefferson as a last name,” Stephen Robicheaux, Destrehan High School's head coach, told the Advocate. “So, you kind of got Justin on your radar. You know he’s going to be a good player.” Trying to keep up with his older brothers helped drive Justin. “Seeing that at a young age and growing up wanting to play football, wanting to be like my brothers, playing on this high level and playing for a national title, it’s something special,” Jefferson told the New York Post. “I definitely want to get a ring for my brothers, especially Rickey, because he didn’t have a great four years here.” While Jefferson had the name, he didn’t have the recruiting stars. LSU’s JaMarr Chase and Terrace Marshall were considered elite prospects while Jefferson was only a three-star recruit. “It was a hard time for me and my family,” he told Sports Illustrated. “To go through that process and not knowing if I wasn’t going to be able to be on the team or not…” When he was 9, Jefferson finished third in the national Punt, Pass and Kick championship.
Van Jefferson, Florida (6-2, 197): Jefferson’s 175 career receptions are split relatively equally between his 91 catches at Ole Miss in 2016 and 2017 and his 84 catches the past two seasons for the Gators. Jefferson left Ole Miss due to NCAA sanctions so was immediately eligible to play.
His father, Shawn Jefferson, caught 470 passes over 13 NFL seasons and has been an NFL assistant coach since 2006. He is entering his second year as the Jets’ receivers coach. “A lot of times, he had to overcome being my son,” Shawn Jefferson told the Athletic. “Van is very driven. He’s extremely driven. Not that he hates the fact … I think what kind of fuels him sometimes is that they’ll mention him as the son of former NFL player and coach Shawn Jefferson. Van wants to dispel all of that, which I love — I absolutely love it. That’s why when I get requests for interviews, I never call back. I want them to focus on Van and not the fact I’m his father and blah, blah, blah …” For his part, Van was grateful for his father’s wisdom. “I owe that to my father with him playing in the NFL and coaching some high-talented guys,” Jefferson told the Rebel Walk when he was asked about his efficient route running. “When I was growing up, every day I was in the field with him going through drills and everything like that. God blessed me with some raw ability, and my father helped me hone it from an early age.” He has a daughter.