Langston Hughes head coach Daniel “Boone” Williams remembers seeing Jelani Thurman as a youth football player.
Today, Thurman is a 6-foot-6, 253-pound freshman tight end at Ohio State, but back then he wasn’t nearly as big. But still big enough to stand out.
“This kid is bigger than everybody else he’s playing against,” Williams told Buckeye Huddle of his first memories of seeing Thurman in those youth games.
Youth leagues have weight limits, and for those players who exceed those limits, they have a red stripe or an X on their helmets signifying that they can’t carry the football.
Thurman had one of those stripes, so where did he play?
“Defensive end,” Williams said with a chuckle.
As you can imagine, he was quite disruptive. Apparently, Jelani Thurman felt that if he wasn’t going to be allowed to carry the ball, then neither should the opponent.
Williams kept his eye on Thurman, hoping that one day he would end up at Langston Hughes High School.
“I followed him all the way until he got to me,” Williams said of Thurman. “I’ve known him for most of his life. He was one that was gonna have to grow up, and he grew up fast.”
Growing Up Fast
Jelani Thurman signed with Ohio State as a Top 100 player out of Langston Hughes. He was ranked the No. 3 tight end in his class. Expectations were obviously high, and when Thurman enrolled early and took part in winter conditioning and spring football, he impressed everybody.
Coaches, teammates, and the media all saw him integrated into the offense quickly in spring practice. It helped that he showed up heavier and stronger than anticipated.
“They didn’t expect him to come in at that rate of preparedness, in a sense,” Williams said of the Ohio State staff. “They didn’t expect him to be the guy that he is. The thought was ‘there is gonna be a lot of growing up that has to be done, and we’re glad we’re gonna get this out of the way.’ But he went in there, and he went in on a mission.”
Williams has kept in frequent contact with the Ohio State coaches, checking in on his former player and staying up to date with how things are going.
When asked if Williams himself was surprised by how well Thurman has done in such a short period of time, he first said no, but then recanted.
“Well, a little bit,” he admitted. “Honestly, I’ll go back, I didn’t think he was gonna go in and really lock in that fast.”
Thurman was a frequent target in the red zone during spring practice, using his long frame to unleash a catch radius that went beyond any defender who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.
When watching Thurman on the practice field at Ohio State, it didn’t take long to be convinced that he’s got a bright future. For Williams, that realization happened a long time ago.
“As soon as he got to high school I knew he was going to be good,” Williams said. “He is a unicorn. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical. He can run. He can run routes. He can catch. He’s faster than the linebackers. He’s longer than the DBs. He was a unicorn in the high school game.”
You Can Take A Unicorn To Water…
There have been plenty of athletes who were simply bigger and stronger than everybody else. They generally end up living in their glory days of high school ball.
The ones that respond to challenges can become so much more, and that’s how Jelani Thurman continues to progress.
“He always stands up to challenges,” Williams said. “Any time. You know, I kinda would get on him and try to ride him a little bit. He only performed at a higher level than expected. He responds to it really well.”
The jump from high school to college creates all kinds of challenges for players, and all coaches ask is that the players continue to push through. It’s an awakening for a lot of athletes as they find out what they are actually capable of doing.
“I don’t think he realized how good he could be until he got to Ohio State. Here he was just a man among boys,” Williams said.
“Once he got up there and he saw what everything took — he saw how hard Cade Stover works. Cade’s considered a first rounder, and in his mind, he said ‘I’m gonna go be better than him.’”
Rock & Roll
Jelani Thurman already physically looks the part of a collegiate tight end but there is still plenty of work to be done before he’s on the field with the Buckeyes with any regularity. He will continue to work towards his goal, and according to Williams, he’ll be happy to do it.
“He always has a smile on his face,” he said. “He’s fun loving. He was at practice recently walking around just smiling at everybody. It lets me know that he’s still enjoying it.”
But when Thurman finally does get on the field, he could be pretty special.
“Some of his strengths are route running, catch radius, hand size, arm length, in-line blocking,” Williams said. “He’s able to play multiple positions on offense. Some of his knocks, of course strength at that level. Physicality at that level. Those are his ‘weaknesses,’ should I say, but other than that, he’s ready to rock and roll.”