In football recruiting, you’ll occasionally see a player’s position listed as “ATH.”
The abbreviation is short for “Athlete,” and it’s reserved for players with the athleticism and versatility to line up at multiple positions—particularly on offense.
While ATH works for Jaylen Samuels, I think we may need to introduce another moniker that more accurately describes his game—TDM. Short for Touchdown Machine. Samuels tallied a ridiculous 47 touchdowns during his career at NC State, and he did so while lining up all over the field. Versatility has become a big buzzword in the modern NFL, but Samuels—who measures in at 5-foot-11, 223 pounds—takes that trait to another stratosphere. Just watch all the ways he hit pay dirt for the Wolfpack in 2017:
The first play sees Samuels streak downfield from an H-back position for a receiving score. The second shows him punching it in from a traditional running back spot. On the third play, he lines up at tight end only to take a shovel pass for 6. Then he lines up as a slot receiver and takes a jet sweep before making about a million defenders miss. He even scores as a wildcat quarterback. Over the course of his time at NC State, Samuels also made plays as a fullback, outside receiver, kick returner and trick play quarterback. The only limit to his versatility seems to be his play caller’s creativity. It’s not hyperbole to say there’s never been a prospect quite like Samuels before.
He also made 8 tackles and forced a fumble during his collegiate career, prompting STACK to ask Samuels if there’s anything he can’t do between the white lines. “I’d say snap the ball. I don’t think I can be a center,” Samuels says with a laugh. “But I can do whatever somebody asks me to—besides snapping.”
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Something tells me Samuels won’t have to worry about that. But how did he become so good at so many aspects of the game? What path must a young player follow to turn into the football equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife? For Samuels, it all started in Charlotte, North Carolina. Samuels grew up about three hours away from NC State’s campus, and his childhood was defined by competition.
“I’ve been playing sports since I was 6. Football, basketball, baseball, I ran track in high school. So I’ve been around sports my whole life,” Samuels says. “I have two older brothers so we always had basketball games, pick-up games. It was very competitive, and I think that’s where I get my competitiveness from.” Samuels actually envisioned himself as an NBA player for much of his pre-teen years, but the longer he played football, the more he realized it was his true calling.
In Samuels’ mind, there’s little doubt playing multiple sports during his younger years helped him build a foundation of athleticism which ultimately created a more well-rounded and explosive football player. “Growing up and playing different sports all my life helped with my skillset and being able to do different things,” Samuels says. After suffering a broken collarbone during 7-on-7s his freshman year at Mallard Creek High School, Samuels began taking his training more seriously. The school had a solid weight program in place, and the football staff stressed its importance. Samuels remembers how painfully sore he felt after those first few workouts, but once he saw the improvements they brought about, he was hooked.
“At first, (lifting weights) was kinda annoying. I was getting sore and I didn’t like that feeling. But once I started realizing how important it was and the translation from the weight room to the field, I started loving it. I started enjoying it. My maxes started going up, and I felt like I was getting really strong,” Samuels says.
As a sophomore, Samuels started several games on the varsity team at safety. When he snagged an interception and took it back 103 yards to the house, the coaching staff realized his skills were being underutilized. Aaron Brand, the team’s offensive coordinator at the time, believed Samuels needed the ball in his hands as much as possible. “Jaylen could catch, he could run, he could throw it, and you could see his body was starting to change because of the weightlifting classes. I thought, why not move this guy who is growing and has all this ability to build around for the future,” Brand told The Fayetteville Observer.
Toward the end of his sophomore season, the unselfish Samuels was used mostly as a lead blocker for future Duke running back Jela Duncan. That offseason, Brand spent a lot of time devising schemes to utilize Samuels as an offensive playmaker. Brand saw something in Samuels as a player and as a person and pushed him to reach his full potential. “(Coach Brand) saw something in me that a lot of people didn’t. He pushed me and he basically made the man I am today. He made me work harder,” Samuels says.
Brand deployed Samuels as a hybrid H-back/receiver that season, and the results were spectacular. Samuels caught 45 passes for 1,021 yards and 12 touchdowns for a 12-2 Mallard Creek team that advanced to the state semifinals. Samuels believes his time as a safety helped him see the field differently on offense. “I got a feel for what linebackers and safeties are thinking…that exposure to both sides of the ball, I think it really helped me,” Samuels says.
With Samuels’ senior season approaching, Brand pulled out all the stops. Dating back to his high school days, Samuels has had an uncanny ability to quickly grasp the Xs and Os of the game. “Football kinda comes natural to me. I’m a visual learner—once I see it a couple times, I got it,” Samuels says. “To be honest, I really rarely looked at the playbook (at NC State).” Samuels’ incredible football IQ gave Brand the confidence to put a lot on his young star player’s plate.
While there were occasional hiccups, Samuels believes he would not be where he is today without Brand’s belief in him.
“I remember my junior year, I had to run a play 8 times over and over. He just wanted to see me be great. He’s probably been my biggest motivator throughout my football career,” Samuels says.
During his senior season, Samuels lined up at running back, receiver, H-back, quarterback—well, you get the idea. He scored a touchdown on every 2.8 touches and accounted for 59 total TDs that season. In the 4AA state title game, Samuels scored five touchdowns (three rushing, two receiving) to give Mallard Creek its first state championship in school history. “I spent some long nights in the offseason trying to figure out how to get him the ball. I came up with as many ways as you can think of. The rest is history,” Brand says.
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Bizarrely, Samuels generated a lot less recruiting interest than you’d expect for a player with such prolific production. College coaches and recruiting services alike didn’t quite seem to know what to do with him—Rivals had him listed as a fullback, for example. 247Sports had Samuels listed as the 2,680th-ranked player in his class. While many big-time programs saw a player without a true position, NC State saw a mismatch machine capable of shredding defenses no matter where he lined up.
“Coach (Eddie) Faulkner, he was my recruiting coach at NC State,” Samuels said. “He told me I would basically be doing the same thing I did in high school…that’s kinda how I got to NC State.” NC State was the lone Power 5 conference team to offer Samuels, a fact which would soon haunt many of their opponents.
Samuels continued to hit the weights hard in the summer leading up to his freshman year on campus, but he also hit his mother’s home-cooking a little too hard. When he showed up in Raleigh, he was shockingly strong for a freshman, but he was also carrying some excess body fat. “I came in (as) the fat, chubby guy and I was eating real good at home before I came into college. I was about 235 with a lot of body fat,” Samuels recalls.
Some extra pounds didn’t stop Samuels from appearing in 11 games as a freshman and totaling 239 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, but he had greater aspirations. After his freshman season, he met with the team nutritionists in an effort to clean up his diet. He loved fast food burgers and anything with cheese on it, but those choices were promptly cut back in favor of lean meats, brown rice and more produce.
“After my freshman year, I started to realize how important it was to take care of your nutrition. I got with the nutritionists and the strength coaches, and they basically just told me I needed to get right. So I changed my eating habits and got down to 225 for my sophomore year,” Samuels says.
That weight loss proved to be very fruitful for Samuels, who totaled 965 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign. Samuels was listed as a tight end that season, and his 65 receptions were the most of any tight end in the country. He earned first-team All-ACC honors as well as third-team All-America recognition. That was enough to convince Samuels that he’d found his perfect playing weight, as he was still powerful enough to trample over defensive backs, yet quick enough to fly by most linebackers. “I saw the production on the field, I had a great year my sophomore year. (So) I stayed at 225 for the rest of my career,” Samuels said.
Prior to the 2016 season, Samuels was awarded the No. 1 jersey in a vote by his teammates. An annual tradition that head coach Dave Doeren brought to Raleigh, the No. 1 jersey is designated for a player who displays exemplary leadership and work ethic on and off the field. “It’s very special to wear No. 1. We had a leadership council meeting and it was the other guys on the team who voted for me,” said Samuels, who had previously worn No. 28 for the Wolfpack. “It was pretty exciting—I’d never worn a single-digit number before.”
Samuels’ junior season was another success, with him tallying 754 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. Perhaps his best game that season came against Clemson, who was ranked No. 3 in the nation at the time. Samuels hauled in eight passes for 100 yards as the Wolfpack nearly pulled off a massive road upset before falling in overtime.
“I really put in the work throughout the week, game-planning wise and getting extra preparation, going to see coaches after hours,” Samuels says. “I felt like I was very prepared going into that game.” He almost assuredly would’ve been a draft pick had he declared following the 2016 season, yet Samuels felt he had unfinished business at NC State. Last offseason, he dedicated himself to becoming more cerebral in the film room. Although he’d watched plenty of film before, he hadn’t really gotten much out of it.
“The main thing was not just to watch film, but to (learn) how to watch film. What to look at,” Samuels says. “(Seeing) player’s techniques and their strengths and weaknesses. The different coverages and fronts, their tendencies, what they like to do and don’t like to do. I think coach Faulkner did a good job with me (getting) extra film work…I made improvements by watching film.”
Coach Dantonio “Thunder” Burnette also pushed Samuels to get stronger in the weight room. By the time summer camp rolled around, Samuels felt primed for a fantastic final season. The ACC also created a new spot on their preseason all-conference team that was essentially tailor-made for Samuel—All-Purpose Back.
The man they call JaySam did not disappoint in 2017. He hauled in 75 receptions for 593 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns and tallied 407 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. That equated to an even 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns. Samuels was a first-team All-ACC selection as an All-Purpose Back. He also left Raleigh as the program’s all-time leader in career receptions with 201—one more than the 200 mark set by previous record-holder Jerricho Cotchery.
Now, Samuels is out to prove his unique game can make him a difference-maker at the next level. To help him prepare for the draft process, he turned to EXOS in Carlsbad, California. STACK caught up with Samuels on location and found an impressive athlete with an easy-going personality. But Samuels assured us that he’s a totally different cat on the field. “You gotta have that dog mentality on the field, and I feel like that’s what I have. Once I get on the field, I’m very competitive. I might not seem (like that) right now, but on the field, I’m a totally different person,” Samuels says.
EXOS helped him fine-tune the technique needed to ace the Combine tests, as Samuels points to his stance in the 40 and his cutting mechanics in the agility drills as two areas where he’d seen big improvements. Samuels showed up in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine rocking a “TE” on his chest, but NFL teams should know better than to put him in a box. His 4.54 40-yard Dash was tied for first among all tight ends and would’ve been a top-10 result among running backs, while his 6.93 3-Cone Drill was second among tight ends and would’ve tied for fifth-best among running backs.
NC State had a vision for Samuels when they recruited him. If the NFL team who drafts him does the same, he could wind up being a steal. As the league has evolved, running backs are now expected to significantly contribute in the receiving game. We saw three running backs—Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey—rank in the top 15 in the NFL for receptions last season. Could JaySam soon join their ranks? Only time will tell, but we’ve seen what’s happened when he’s been doubted before.
“This is what I’ve been working for all my life,” Samuels says. “I’m going to give it all I got. I’m going to push for that extra rep and I’m going to do the extra stuff I need to do to be ready.”
Photo Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images, Icon Sportswire/Getty Images