The Vanderbilt Hustler | Jayden McGowan launches Freshman All-American campaign: ‘I want to be the best in the country’


Six days a week, Jayden McGowan is just a normal Vanderbilt student. He works tirelessly to get good grades, loves his introductory sociology class, and enjoys dinners at McDougal’s (formerly fire). On Saturdays, however, McGowan is anything but ordinary. Over the course of six weeks, he’s already compiled a reel of rushing and receiving highlights, earning him SEC Rookie of the Week and sixth-most receiving yards in the SEC. His electrifying speed and ability to miss defenders has already taken Vanderbilt fans by storm – and soon, the rest of the country.

Growing up, McGowan’s best friend was his older brother Darius Harvey. The two shared an incredibly close relationship, and McGowan modeled much of his behavior after Harvey. Therefore, when Harvey signed up to play college football, McGowan decided he had to do the same.

“I wasn’t like, ‘Maybe I can go to college for free for [football]’til I was in sixth grade, because that’s when my brother went to college,” McGowan said.

Fortunately, Harvey had helped McGowan develop strong skills that would allow him to realize those dreams. Despite being six years apart, the couple spent hours playing and watching football together throughout their childhood. Learning from his brother helped McGowan master the ins and outs of the game long before many of his classmates.

Playing a number of other sports has also contributed to McGowan’s growth as a football player. Growing up, he played baseball and basketball, and when he entered high school, he joined the track team. This combination of sports helped him develop rare speed, vision, and hand-eye coordination that led him to high levels of success at Vanderbilt. Although he was never the tallest player on the court, McGowan found ways to beat defenders taller than himself with his quick feet and strong hands.

“Earl Bennett, one of Vanderbilt’s former students, always says my superpower is my feet and my speed,” McGowan said. “So I make them use their feet because the higher corners don’t have the best feet.”

Playing sports in high school also taught McGowan valuable mental skills that he could apply on the football field, including resilience.

“Really pushing myself to get better at these sports taught me how to motivate myself,” McGowan said. “If I wasn’t good at something, I was going to work as hard as possible and as long as possible at it just to get good at it.”

Considering all of his tools, it’s a bit disconcerting that McGowan received little recruiting interest until his senior year of high school. Fortunately, one of the schools that reached out was Vanderbilt.

McGowan admitted that before he was drafted he knew very little about Vanderbilt. When coaches contacted him, he consulted with his cousin, Thomas Jones, who had signed to Vanderbilt to play baseball in 2016 but ended up signing with the Marlins instead. Jones praised the opportunities at school, and after making an official visit, McGowan knew Vanderbilt would be a perfect fit. Additionally, McGowan said head coach Clark Lea made a strong impression on him throughout the recruiting process.

“I thought it was too good to be true,” McGowan said. “This guy is always nice. He [was] always check on me see how i [was] feeling.”

McGowan’s relationship with Lea was one of the most important parts of his Vanderbilt experience. While Lea usually works with defense, McGowan explained that Lea takes time throughout her day to make sure all of her players, including those on offense, are doing well mentally and physically.

“He cares a lot about his players,” McGowan said. “He helped me, he motivated me, he just told me to keep going… I ‘didn’t make it’ is what he says.”

While Lea can say McGowan’s true potential has yet to be revealed, his performance on the pitch isn’t the same. After racking up 56 scrimmage yards against Hawaii, the freshman broke out in Vanderbilt’s first home game of the season. On 3rd and 10th from Vanderbilt’s own 25-yard line, McGowan passed Elon’s cornerback Jaidyn Denis and carried a nice pass from Mike Wright, taking it 75 yards for the touchdown.

The effort caught the attention of Commodore and SEC loyalists, who named him Freshman of the Week. But even after logging 118 yards and a touchdown, McGowan still wasn’t satisfied.

“It wasn’t as impressive to me as everyone made it look,” McGowan said. “My expectations of myself have always been very high… [so] I just wanted to continue and progress from there.

McGowan has done just that, recording 20 catches for 235 yards in four games since then. Thirty-six of those yards came last week, when he caught a screen pass and shook off two Ole Miss defenders, shoving his way into the end zone for his second touchdown of the year. The play highlighted that McGowan’s strengths go beyond his blistering speed.

“I’m very aggressive with the ball in my hands, trying to fight for extra yards,” McGowan said. “I take great pride in not going out of bounds when running along the sideline.”

Interestingly enough, McGowan’s increased involvement coincided with the arrival of fellow freshman AJ Swann at quarterback. The two have already linked 18 times in the three-and-a-half games they’ve played together, illustrating a strong passing connection that McGowan attributes to the bond they’ve established off the pitch.

“We came on an official visit at the same time, and AJ and I have been best friends ever since,” McGowan said. “So I think it strengthens our relationship on the pitch.”

Mentorship from some of the team’s veteran players also played a role in McGowan’s continued growth. In addition to Mike Wright, who took him to practice just two days after he arrived on campus last winter, McGowan has become very close with fellow receivers Will Sheppard and Quincy Skinner.

“They’ve been like an extra set of receiver coaches,” McGowan said. “They’ve really helped me become the wide receiver I want to be.”

The biggest tool they’ve helped McGowan with is his running, which McGowan admits wasn’t where he needed to be when he arrived on campus. Working with them and the coaching staff, McGowan has developed various techniques to hide the route he is following from defenders.

“When I got here and we had our first practice, I was like, ‘Why is he guarding this road so perfectly? Why am I locked into these games?’ “, McGowan said. “[Since then] I just got rid of a lot of indicators… My ability to open up has been much better since I got here.

However, whether it’s expanding his rush arsenal or finding ways to contribute without the ball in his hands, McGowan knows he still has a lot of work to do to become an all-around wide receiver. Fortunately, he thinks Vanderbilt is the perfect place to continue his evolution.

“I’ve improved so much as a player since I arrived here… [but] I’m not there yet,” McGowan said. “I [still] have a lot to work on.

Over the next four years, McGowan will need to ensure that no box is ticked if he is to achieve his ultimate goal.

“I want to be the best in the country,” he said.


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