TAMPA — The first time Darius Willis can recall watching Jaelon Darden, the future Bucs wideout was playing pickup with fellow underclassmen at Houston’s Eisenhower High School. Then, as now, Darden was one of the smallest players on the field.
“And he was making everybody miss,” said Willis, an Eisenhower alum and Darden’s longtime trainer.
As he walked off the Bucs practice field on Day 2 of the Bucs’ mandatory minicamp on June 8, Darden said he had wanted to play receiver his whole life. As one of Eisenhower’s best athletes, however, he “took one for the team” and started at quarterback.
The shortest player on the Bucs roster at 5-feet-8, Darden earned all-district honors but knew he wouldn’t play the position in college. But he couldn’t get reps at receiver in practice, so when Willis returned after playing linebacker and serving as a graduate assistant at the University of Kansas, the two began honing his craft.
Darden was a quick study. For all his talent, his ability to retain information stood out to Willis the most.
“He has this real natural ability of picking up things and being able to apply it to his game,” Willis said. “Anything that I have ever taught, he’s always been able to apply it and use it in real, live situations.”
It’s a good quality to have when Tom Brady is your quarterback, especially as the 2021 fourth-round pick out of North Texas battles for a roster spot and/or playing time in a crowded wide receiver room.
Finding his feet
The Bucs traded up to nab Darden after an All-America season in 2020, when his 19 touchdown receptions were second in the country only to Heisman winner DeVonta Smith (23). However, the Mean Green’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns only caught six passes his rookie year in Tampa Bay.
Darden displaced Jaydon Mickens in the return game but only managed 19.9 and 7.5 yards on 37 total kick and punt returns, respectively — contributions Darden admitted were “subpar.”
After Cyril Grayson and Breshad Perriman’s roles increased last season, many believed Darden’s roster spot was in jeopardy. He was a frequent target of Brady during minicamp, though, and head coach Todd Bowles said Darden had a great offseason.
“I think he’s got his head down, he’s working, he’s in shape, he understands the offense, and he’s just letting his play speak for itself,” Bowles said during minicamp.
Cornerback Carlton Davis also likes what he’s seen from Darden since last fall.
“I’m really proud of him, and that’s another young guy that I want to help develop because he has a lot of potential,” Davis said. “He can be a really good playmaker for us and compete for that receiver spot among this talented receiver group.”
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It’s no accident Darden has grown more comfortable within the offense. He said he worked with the playbook “three times per day” during the offseason.
“Knowing the offense, knowing how (Brady’s) thinking, knowing where he wants to go,” Darden said of what he focused on. “If that side is clogged up, ‘Oh, he’s coming to me.’”
Brady overthrew Darden deep over the middle on his first downfield pass during 11-on-11 drills on Day 1 of minicamp. The seven-time Super Bowl champion shouted a one-syllable expletive before taking Darden aside for a one-way conversation.
Darden said it’s the type of “hard coaching” he loves.
“So when he did that, it kind of lit a fire in me,” Darden said. “Like, ‘Oh, come on, get it together. Let’s get it rolling.’ I had to lock in and hone in on my craft like he asked me to do, and I just got the job done the rest of the day.”
Later in practice, the two connected on a seam route across the middle for a touchdown. Darden carried the momentum into the next day, catching Brady’s first pass in 11-on-11 work. To bookend practice, he found himself wide open over the middle for a huge gain before making a similar catch during a period of hurry-up offense.
Darden said his work with Mike Evans on hand placement paid dividends when he beat Jamel Dean at the line of scrimmage on his final grab.
“I’ve only seen him for the last two days, but last year he already came in very polished, smooth,” said Evans. “Now, he’s just way better when it comes to the plays and knowing the plays. Knows multiple positions, and he still looks really smooth and fast out there.”
With Chris Godwin (ACL) likely out for the start of the season, Darden’s versatility could be an important asset. He only received one Power Five offer out of high school (Virginia Tech, according to 247Sports). But it would not be the first time an undersized and unheralded wide receiver found success with Brady under center.
Willis agrees that the chip on Darden’s shoulder is “never going to go anywhere.” But he added that people gravitate to Darden’s infectious energy, which helped him win over his older teammates as a diminutive high school quarterback.
“Because you can’t play quarterback and be that small and (have) guys follow your lead,” Willis said, “so it was something that was unique and within his own.”
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