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'Born ready': Duke football's Jalon Calhoun and the Joker

Calhoun's background has helped him become one of the focal points of Duke's offensive game plan.
Calhoun's background has helped him become one of the focal points of Duke's offensive game plan.

Prior to last season, an artist penned a Joker tattoo on Jalon Calhoun’s calf. The tattoo serves as an eternal reminder to Duke’s sophomore wide receiver to always have the mentality of someone who is prepared to do what needs to be done.

One step ahead. Intelligent. Trailblazer. 

Those qualities are why the Joker has continuously evaded Batman and also why Calhoun led Duke in receiving yards and touchdown receptions in his first year ever playing wide receiver. Though Calhoun spent the entirety of his high school career at quarterback, he made a seemingly-effortless switch to wideout  upon his arrival in Durham, shining as a rare bright spot in Duke’s 110th-ranked passing offense. 

“One thing that just stood out about the Joker was he was different from everybody else and he didn’t care what everybody else thought of him,” Calhoun said. “He was always one step, two steps, three steps ahead.”

Calhoun the quarterback

At Southside High, a small high school in Greenville, S.C., Division I FBS football offers rarely happen. In fact, until Calhoun’s senior year of high school, they didn’t happen.

Calhoun quarterbacked the Southside Tigers’ Cinderella run to the state quarterfinal during his senior year. Despite coming up short of a title, Calhoun and one of his teammates garnered attention from college football scouts and ended up with FBS offers, the first two such offers in the school’s history.

“Every young man and young woman in our school now believes that, ‘Hey, I can do that too,'" Southside football head coach Jeremy West said. "And it’s all because of [Calhoun] and his class." 

West has a son in sixth grade, who has Calhoun’s image as the screensaver on his iPad.

“My son thinks the world rises and sets in Jalon Calhoun,” West said.

West’s son is not alone.

Whenever Calhoun returns home, he does not come empty-handed. Rather, he comes with something for all the little kids in his hometown who admire him. Despite college football consuming most of his schedule, spending time with the youth in his community is something that Calhoun makes a priority.

“It means everything to be a Southside Tiger honestly,” Calhoun said in a 2018 interview with Greenville County Schools Athletics. “The legacy I want to leave here for the young kids is they can make it out of anywhere even being at a small school that doesn’t get a lot of recruitment.”

West remembers the countless times he saw Calhoun on the field on Sundays for extra sprints and lifts. He remembers his first full interaction with Calhoun, in which the future Blue Devil spent their entire car ride studying West’s playbook and asking him questions after each page. 

Calhoun’s hometown is better known for its rising ‘foodie’ culture than for football, making the path to college football from Greenville anything but a smooth road.

“There were so many times that I honestly didn’t think I was going to go Division I because of the talk or where I was from and the history,” Calhoun said.

Colleges had trouble deciding what position Calhoun would fit in for their program. His tremendous athleticism and high football IQ allowed him to thrive at quarterback in high school, but few colleges saw a future for him there.

On top of that, Calhoun wanted to be at a college that would provide him the opportunity for a respected degree for life after football.

“There’s not many people that make it out of South Carolina,” Calhoun said.

When Calhoun felt trapped in the Greenville quicksand, he looked to his late grandfather.

“My grandpa, he always said I was ‘born ready,’” Calhoun, who wears a chain around his neck with his grandfather’s words, said.

Finding Duke blue

Despite Calhoun's born ready mindset, college coaches weren’t always ready to give him a chance. His recruiting process started with him and his father emailing schools.

After his father got the ball rolling, Calhoun’s Joker mentality bore fruit in a way that is so fitting for his story. After he finished playing quarterback at a Georgia Tech camp, he casually switched over to defensive back and wide receiver at that same camp.

The result was a Georgia Tech scholarship offer, which he accepted one day after receiving. Calhoun’s future looked like it was going to be gold and navy until Duke blue caught his eye.

After a few months committed as a Yellow Jacket, Calhoun changed his mind. When asked why, his answer was immediate and simple: Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe.

“When I talked to Coach Cut, [I] looked him in his eyes and he talked to me like a man,” Calhoun said. “Ever since then I’ve just loved to be around Coach Cut and I wanted him to coach me because I knew what he was talking about and I know he could help me do what I wanted to do.”

That same player who spent his weekends in the Southside football facilities now traded in hours of throwing practice for hours of catching passes on the Jugs machine.

As a freshman in 2019, Calhoun eagerly grasped every opportunity to catch extra balls from his quarterbacks, and it paid dividends in his first season as a wide receiver.

Cutcliffe typically used Calhoun in the slot, where 2019 starting quarterback Quentin Harris could get the ball into Calhoun’s hands quickly and let him work in open space. The results were often devastating for opponents—the North Carolina A&T defenders that Calhoun shredded for 105 yards and two touchdowns can vouch for that.

Calhoun has some showstopper highlights from last year, but those highlights fail to show an aspect of his game that has always been critical to his success: intelligence.

This past offseason, Calhoun was unhappy with his football IQ at wide receiver. He had spent all of high school mastering the schematics as a quarterback, but lining up out wide and lining up under center are much different.

Calhoun knew if he was going to achieve his lofty goals of 1,000 receiving yards, double-digit touchdowns and a spot on the All-ACC First Team this season, improving on only his physical skills would not be enough. And so he studied.

“When [he was] looking out at that defense before, [Calhoun] could care less if it was a safety, a corner, it didn’t matter, he was just running lines drew on a paper,” Duke wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “Now, he recognizes all the different looks. He sees the tip. He studies tape. He’s hungry to be better and improving his football IQ.” 

The future

Calhoun is still an infant in terms of his football career at the wide receiver position. But even as an infant, he remains essential to Duke's offensive game plan.

“He’s a lego.... He is that guy that can fit, legos fit together, in any offense that you want because of what he has [in his head] and what he has [in his heart],” Taylor said.

Calhoun uses the word “dog” often, and not in reference to any particular four-legged friends.

Being a dog means having what Calhoun calls the “grit” needed to be a dominant competitor. It’s something Calhoun sees in that defensive back’s eyes when he trots to the line of scrimmage and sees in the film room as he scouts his next opponent. 

“Like what Coach [Taylor] says, ‘Either your mom is going to eat or his. Which one is it going to be?” Calhoun said.

To Calhoun, receivers that line up only looking for receptions and touchdowns aren’t dogs. The dogs are the ones who love to block, be physical and study film just as much as they like torching defenses. That’s why Calhoun watches videos of fellow South Carolina native and All-Pro NFL cornerback Stephon Gilmore—he wants to get inside the mind of a cornerback so he can understand how his defenders think. Calhoun can’t just list one receiver that he watches videos on, though, as every video offers a new piece that he can take and make a part of his skill set. 

You’d be hard pressed to find Calhoun away from football. Even in the rare times he allows himself to play video games, Madden NFL is often the game of choice. 

Despite all that time he puts in, Calhoun's love for the game and his teammates remains pure. Whether it’s his air guitar celebration after a touchdown or a text to his teammates, Calhoun knows how to keep everything in perspective.

“He’s an outstanding athlete but he’s humble at the same time,” West said. “He’s a real special, unique human being that I was fortunate enough to be able to coach for one year and I will never forget it and will treasure it for the rest of my life.”

Calhoun’s blossoming legacy

Now, nearly two years removed from his playing days at Southside, Calhoun can look back.

Division I football. Check.

On track for a degree. Check.

Are you happy with the legacy you left behind at Southside High School? A grin creeps across his face.

“Most definitely. I don’t regret anything...I know the work that I put in to get to where I’m at, so there’s just no regret there," Calhoun said. "And that’s really all I can say about that, because everything that I have done is to get to where I’m at now.”

Even though the days of Calhoun being a Tiger will get further away every year, Greenville always keeps a piece of Calhoun close to its heart. His name still echoes through the same PA system on Friday nights, only now it’s for updates of him catching passes for the Blue Devils instead of the Tigers.

The Joker always had a bigger plan, never complacent with what had already been achieved. The tattoo on his calf doesn’t just disappear, and Calhoun has no plans to do so either. 

If all goes according to Calhoun’s plan, he will be giving the little kids in Greenville a football glove with his NFL team's logo on it in the future.

For more preseason coverage of the 2020 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions and more.

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