EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was early in the third quarter, and the 100,000-plus fans in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium were going wild. That’s when Devin Hyatt turned to his father and uttered what earlier would’ve been an inconceivable statement.
“Dad, Jalin’s going to score five times,” Devin Hyatt said after his brother, Jalin, a junior wide receiver at the University of Tennessee, had just scored his third touchdown of the game against Alabama on a 60-yard pass down the left sideline.
“I was like, ‘Get out of here,'” Jamie Hyatt recalled. “He’s like, ‘Watch, he’s scoring five times.’
“Sure enough, he did.”
That was the day that Jalin Hyatt introduced himself to the NFL world. When the day began, he was just another talented, speedy prospect that had the Vols faithful dreaming he could lead them to a return to prominence. By the time the game was over, Hyatt was puffing on a cigar and receiving praise from Peyton Manning.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) October 16, 2022
“You’re a legend,” Manning said during a scene that was captured by a viral picture.
Perhaps it was fate that New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen was there to take in that game from the sidelines.
“I was at that Alabama game,” said Schoen, who six months later would trade up to select Hyatt No. 73 overall. “I can’t remember why I came in late, but I was a little bit late. But I was on the field for the first half. I was coming from another game, landed there, and first half I was on the field, and you could really feel his speed. It’s legit 4.3 [seconds in the 40-yard dash].”
Hyatt officially ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds at the NFL combine earlier this year before the Giants were so intrigued by that speed and big-play ability that they traded up to get him midway through Day 2. It was a surprise that the speedster, who once ran 4.29 and 4.31 laser times in the 40-yard dash at Nike’s The Opening in 2019, was still available at that point.
After all, there aren’t any other men walking this planet that can boast about a five-touchdown performance against Alabama and its legendary coach Nick Saban. Jalin Hyatt is that list.
FOR THE FIRST time in his life on a football field, Hyatt wasn’t doing much. He suffered a concussion in Week 2 of his sophomore season against Pittsburgh and didn’t catch a pass for another three weeks.
It was not how he envisioned building off a promising freshman year at Tennessee. He was banged up. The coaching staff that recruited him was blown out of Knoxville earlier that year for recruiting improprieties. Hyatt wasn’t sure the new staff led by coach Josh Heupel was really committed to him.
“I could tell he was really, really down on himself. He had really lost his confidence,” Jamie Hyatt said in a phone conversation with ESPN. “And at that point, you start looking for excuses.”
It was just days after Hyatt made perhaps the biggest play of the Vols’ season for a fourth-down touchdown late in a Holiday Bowl win over Purdue that the wide receiver shifted his approach. Rather than stay home for the remainder of the winter break, Hyatt went back to Knoxville and began to work.
“I got serious with it,” Hyatt explained during his introductory press conference with the Giants. “I started realizing that this right here is for me.”
Hyatt would lure coaches and teammates into the facility for extra work on days off. He worked overtime to build chemistry with quarterback Hendon Hooker.
Hyatt reported back to his father one day that he had caught 1,200 balls off the JUGS machine. Jamie Hyatt figured that was simply youthful hyperbole. Snagging 300 balls in a given day is a solid number. Four digits is next-level. But sure enough, when the results came back from the coaches, Hyatt had accumulated over 1,000 catches that day.
This was the kind of “first-round work” his father was referencing in those sprawling back-and-forth texts during that difficult sophomore year. This was Hyatt doing everything possible to put himself in the best position for his junior season at Tennessee.
“He was dialed in. It was impressive,” Jamie Hyatt said. “That is kind of how that offseason went.”
It wasn’t just physical growth. It was mental.
The 20-year-old wide receiver wrote at the top and bottom of his notebook: “SAY IT, THINK IT, BELIEVE IT, DO IT AND YOU’LL GET IT.” In between, he wrote his goals.
“I will be the No. 1 receiver in the SEC.”
“I will be a 1,000 yard receiver in the SEC.”
“I will be the most confident one on the field.”
“I will change the way my family lives.”
One by one, over the course of the last season, they started coming to fruition.
“Man, that was pretty powerful stuff,” Jamie Hyatt said. “He checked them all off. He checked them all off.
IT ALL CAME together that afternoon in mid-October against Alabama. One after another, Hyatt was racing downfield past a future NFL defensive back. He became the first player to score three or more touchdowns and reach 100 yards receiving against a Nick Saban team at Alabama.
Hyatt had six catches for 207 yards and five touchdowns in that contest. He finished with 67 catches for 1,267 yards and a school-record 15 touchdowns while being named unanimous first-team All-American and winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.
It was more than just the Alabama game that captured the attention of NFL teams.
“Well, he played in the SEC, so it’s pretty good conference down there,” Giants coach Brian Daboll said. “He had an outstanding game, no question about it, but he was a productive player for them. Good speed, had good intangibles. We met with him on the [Top] 30 visit. It was kind of all-encompassing.”
Still, there were doubters. He was the 10th wide receiver drafted.
“Toughness” is how one NFL executive answered to ESPN on why he was still not selected through two rounds.
That question was asked because at the top of the third round it seemed curious that Hyatt was still available. The Giants agreed. They traded their third- and fourth-round picks to land Hyatt, and didn’t seem to care about others’ concerns.
“I’m not sure why he was there,” Schoen said. “But we feel good about him and glad he was.”
Hyatt seems to realize how impactful that Alabama game was for his future. It, at the very least, played a part in helping him land in New York, especially after hearing during the Top 30 visit that Schoen was on the sideline.
“It probably changed my life,” Hyatt said. “But you know at the same time, though, that’s what football can do to you. That’s what it can bring and that’s why I take this sport so serious. This is my life and I love the sport and I love the game. I feel like loving the game or mistakes I make or whatever, if I’m doing good or doing bad, just learning from it and getting better the next day. I think that’s the biggest thing that I learned and just want to build on when I get [to the Giants].”
How one game against Alabama landed Jalin Hyatt with the Giants