Jelani Woods’ rise started long before he rocketed up draft boards

The night before Virginia’s Pro Day, 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 good luck. The two had gotten to know each other at the Shrine Bowl, an all-star game for college seniors.

Galko, an executive with the Shrine Bowl, got a reply in the morning.

“I hope you’re ready,” Woods texted, including a popcorn emoji.

Hours later — this time after Woods’ performance — Galko hit him back.

“Jesus Christ,” Galko wrote. “I was absolutely not ready for that.”

Every year there seems to be a handful of prospects who rocket up draft boards because of eye-popping statistical measurements, the kinds that cause scouts to double-check their stopwatches to make sure the numbers are right. With the three-day NFL draft beginning 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 ever. And while that may come off as usual pre-draft bluster, Woods’ performance at Virginia’s Pro Day and the NFL’s scouting combine back up the assertion.

Last month, Woods recorded a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump, completed the three-cone drill in 6.95 seconds and covered 10 feet, 9 inches on the broad jump at Virginia’s Pro Day — building on the momentum Woods earned 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 appears poised to become one of the fastest risers in this year’s draft.

Woods wasn’t completely surprised by this development. He’s always been confident in his abilities. This was a player, after all, who has said he wore No. 0 at Virginia because he believed zero people could stop him. His reply — check that , prediction — to Galko only reinforced his strong sense of belief, rooted in his upbringing in a southern suburb outside Atlanta.

If you’re just paying attention now, he doesn’t seem to mind. Woods has known what he can do all along.

“No matter what I’m doing, no matter where I’m at, if I’m on the field or on the bench, I’m going to have competition mentality,” Woods says. “If I’m on the bench , I’ll outroot you. I’ll make sure I’m the loudest person to cheer on my teammates. But if I’m on the field, I’m trying to be that impact player.”

Best kept secret

Over the phone, Robert Anae begins to sound increasingly perplexed as he recalls the interest that Woods has received from the NFL during the past few weeks. The former Virginia offensive coordinator, now with Syracuse, said there’s been a shift in how teams have inquired about the tight end. Many callers, he said, ask the basics: Who is he? How does he work under pressure? How was he learning the offense? What’s his football IQ?

Anae just couldn’t understand why these conversations weren’t happening months earlier — when Woods was taking the ACC by storm.

“There’s probably a higher interest and higher rating of him now than there were a couple of months ago,” Anae said.

Anae said, that in December, Woods received feedback that he was projected to be anywhere from a fourth- to sixth-round pick. These days, the more common opinion appears to be that Woods will be taken in the third round on Friday.

If Woods is indeed drafted then, it wouldn’t be the first time Anae believes the tight end will have been initially overlooked. Prior to last season, Anae recalled looking at preseason All-ACC predictions — which he said failed to mention Woods.

To be fair, not many could have seen Woods’ rise coming. Woods originally committed to Oklahoma State as a dual-threat quarterback, riding the bench until he switched to tight end near the end of his freshman season. Oklahoma State’s coaches asked Woods to make the switch after the Georgia native impressively mimicked then Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews as part of the scout team. Woods, wanting desperately to see the field, embraced 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 transferred to Virginia because he wanted to be featured more in the passing game, and Anae quickly realized what he had.

“We knew going into the year, ‘Alright, we’ve got a weapon here that the conference knows nothing about,'” Anae said.

Success soon followed. Woods, in 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 first-team All ACC.

“I do see it as a relief to show what I can finally do,” Woods said.

Wanting to be great

Woods understands the concerns. With almost any athlete that tests off the charts, there’s a skepticism that comes with it. What good is a fast 40-yard dash if one can’t properly run a route? And in meetings with teams, Woods said scouts have remarked how his game speed doesn’t necessarily look like a 4.61.

For this, Woods has an explanation: He hurt his ankle at Virginia, first tweaking it in Week 3 against North Carolina and then suffering a full-on high-ankle sprain a week later against Wake Forest. The injury caused Woods to sit out a week, but the issue lingered for the rest of the season.

“I could barely walk,” he says.

That’s not to say that Woods sees his game as perfect. He said he realizes at the next level he needs to hone his technique, whether as a route runner or a blocker. A scouting report from NFL Network notes that Woods has a tendency to lose positioning and can lean into his routes, making them more predictable.

Galko, though, said Woods’ upside makes him an intriguing prospect. There’s raw athleticism that’s apparent on film, athleticism that can be tapped into at the next level, Galko said.

“You’re already seeing this huge increase since he’s stepped foot on campus at Virginia,” said Galko, the Shrine Bowl’s director of player personnel. “It’s because of the work he’s done as a route runner. And the fact that he’s gotten better so quickly shows that he’s going to get even much better when it comes to being an NFL player.”

Ultimately, becoming an NFL player is all that Woods has ever wanted. He played multiple sports growing up — including AAU basketball with future NBA stars Collin Sexton and Wendell Carter Jr. — but football was Woods’ true passion. Gregory Woods, Jelani’s father, remembers how when his son was 3 or 4, he’d wear football pads around the house or out in public — and how Jelani would cry when his parents tried to take them off.

As a refrigeration and aeration technician for Kroger, Gregory Woods would work long hours only 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 you want to throw the ball?'” Gregory Woods said. “I said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ So we go out there and we throw the football, but he (did) that just about 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’s always an opportunity to get better or to embrace the opportunity, his father told him. And Woods took that message to heart, relying on it throughout his life.

Look at where it has led him now.

“He’s always wanted to be great,” Gregory Woods said.

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