The day before Pro Day in Virginia, Jelani Woods received a text from a friend. The tight end would perform in front of NFL scouts, executives and coaches, so Eric Galko decided to wish Woods well. The two had gotten to know each other at the Shrine Bowl, an all-star game for college seniors.
Galko, a Shrine Bowl executive, received a response in the morning.
“Hope you’re ready,” Woods sent, including a popcorn emoji.
Hours later – this time after Woods’ performance – Galko fired back at him.
“Jesus Christ,” Galko wrote. “I was absolutely not ready for that.”
Every year, there seems to be a handful of leads that skyrocket because of mind-boggling statistical metrics, the kind that cause scouts to double-check their stopwatches to make sure the numbers are correct. With the NFL’s three-day draft starting Thursday, Woods falls into that category. At 6-foot-7 and 253 pounds, the 23-year-old is one of the most athletic tight ends of all time. And while that might sound like usual pre-draft bluster, Woods’ performance at Virginia’s Pro Day and NFL scouting backs up the claim.
Last month, Woods recorded a vertical leap of 37 1/2 inches, completed the three-cone routine in 6.95 seconds and covered 10 feet, 9 inches in the long jump on Virginia pro day. – building on the momentum Woods gained at the combine when he ran a 4.61 40-yard dash. Woods had tested better than even Galko expected, catching the attention of the NFL scouting community.
A year ago, Woods was an unproven transfer from Oklahoma State. Now, suddenly, he looks set to become one of the fastest risers in this year’s draft.
Woods wasn’t completely surprised by this development. He always had confidence in his abilities. He was a player, after all, who said he wore number 0 at Virginia because he believed no one could stop him. His response — check that, prediction — to Galko only reinforced his strong sense of belief, rooted in his upbringing in a southern suburb outside of Atlanta.
If you just pay attention now, he doesn’t seem to care. Woods always knew what he could do.
“No matter what I do, no matter where I am, whether I’m on the court or on the bench, I’m going to have a competitive mentality,” Woods said. “If I’m on the bench, I’ll uproot you. I’m going to make sure I’m the loudest person to cheer on my teammates. But if I’m on the pitch, I try to be that impact player.
Best Kept Secret
Over the phone, Robert Anae begins to look increasingly puzzled as he recalls the interest Woods has received from the NFL over the past few weeks. The former offensive coordinator for Virginia, now with Syracuse, said there’s been a change in how teams inquire about the tight end. Many callers, he said, ask for the basics: Who is he? How does he work under pressure? How did he learn of the offence? What is his football IQ?
Anae just couldn’t understand why those conversations hadn’t happened months earlier — when Woods was storming the ACC.
“There’s probably more interest and a higher rating for him now than there was a few months ago,” Anae said.
Anae said that in December, Woods received comments indicating he had to be between a fourth-to-sixth-round pick. These days, the prevailing opinion seems to be that Woods will be taken in the third round on Friday.
If Woods is indeed drafted, it wouldn’t be the first time Anae thinks the tight end was initially overlooked. Before last season, Anae recalled watching the All-ACC preseason predictions — which he said didn’t mention Woods.
To be fair, few could have seen Woods’ rise coming. Woods originally signed to Oklahoma State as a dual-threat quarterback, on the bench until moving to tight end near the end of his freshman season. Oklahoma State coaches asked Woods to make the switch after the Georgia native impressively impersonated Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews as part of the scouting team. Woods, desperate to see the pitch, agreed to the change.
Even then, Woods didn’t have much production with the Cowboys. In three seasons, he was used primarily as a blocking tight end and had just 31 catches for 361 yards after three seasons. Woods said he moved to Virginia because he wanted to be featured more in the passing game, and Anae quickly realized what he had.
“We knew at the beginning of the year, ‘Okay, we have a weapon here that the conference doesn’t know about,'” Anae said.
Success soon followed. Woods, just his second game with the Cavaliers, exploded onto the scene with a career-high 122 yards and a touchdown against Illinois. He finished the year as an All ACC first team.
“I see it as a relief to show what I can finally do,” Woods said.
want to be big
Woods understands the concerns. With nearly every athlete testing off the charts, there’s a skepticism that comes with it. What good is a 40 meter quick dash if you can’t execute a route correctly? And in meetings with teams, Woods said scouts noticed his playing speed didn’t necessarily feel like a 4.61.
For that, Woods has an explanation: He injured his ankle in Virginia, first honed it in Week 3 against North Carolina, then suffered a complete ankle sprain a week later. against Wake Forest. The injury forced Woods out for a week, but the problem persisted for the rest of the season.
“I could barely walk,” he says.
That’s not to say Woods considers his game perfect. He said he realizes that at the next level he needs to perfect his technique, whether as a road runner or a blocker. An NFL Network scouting report notes that Woods tends to lose positioning and can lean into his routes, making them more predictable.
Galko, however, said Woods’ upside made him an intriguing prospect. There’s a raw athleticism that’s apparent on film, an athleticism that can be taken to the next level, Galko said.
“You’ve already seen this huge increase since he stepped foot on campus in Virginia,” said Galko, director of player personnel at the Shrine Bowl. “It’s because of the work he’s done as a road runner. And the fact that he’s improved so quickly shows that he’s still going to improve as an NFL player.
Ultimately, becoming an NFL player is all Woods ever wanted. He played several sports growing up — including AAU basketball with future NBA stars Collin Sexton and Wendell Carter Jr. — but soccer was Woods’ true passion. Gregory Woods, Jelani’s father, remembers how when his son was 3 or 4 years old he wore football leggings around the house or in public – and how Jelani cried when his parents tried to take them off.
As a refrigeration and ventilation technician for Kroger, Gregory Woods worked long hours to come home to see Jelani in the driveway with a football in his hands. The elder Woods knew what that meant.
“He said, ‘Dad, do you want to throw the ball?'” Gregory Woods said. “I said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ So we go out and throw the football, but he (did) it pretty much every day. That’s why he was a quarterback in high school. He loved throwing that football.
Woods credits his father for instilling his confidence. There is always an opportunity to improve or take the opportunity, his father told him. And Woods took that message to heart, relying on it throughout his life.
Look where that got him now.
“He always wanted to be awesome,” said Gregory Woods.