TAMPA ― In quarterback years, he remains a tyke of sorts, though a darn precocious one.
USF redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud, who began regularly taking snaps only a few months before Donald Trump was elected president, has shown a mesmerizing ability to navigate a collapsing pocket and maintain focus.
Even when limited to one good eye.
Class 7A region final, 2017. Plant trailed Lakeland 10-6 with roughly 2 1/2 minutes to play before a standing-room-only throng on the road. McCloud, who had thrown no interceptions but also had found no offensive rhythm to that point, rolled to his left, where a defensive end came off the edge and got a paw to his face.
“He caught me in my eye and kinda raked it,” McCloud recalled. “So I just threw it and I couldn’t see anymore.”
The spiral sailed past triple coverage and into the arms of teammate Alex Carvajal for a 40-yard completion. To this day, Panthers coach Robert Weiner swears if the pass had sailed mildly right or left, it would’ve been picked.
“It was in the middle of like, a triangle of guys,” Weiner said. “And he basically did it just by having a sense and a knowledge of where everybody was.”
Shortly thereafter, McCloud ― impaired vision and all ― dashed for a first down on a third-and-long quarterback draw, setting up Leonard Parker’s winning 7-yard scoring run with 52 seconds to play.
To Weiner, that possession encapsulates the essence of Jordan Marquis McCloud. In 16 seasons at Plant, he has won four state titles and has sent QBs to Miami, Georgia, Alabama, Cornell and Syracuse. But he reserves some of his loftiest praise for the converted defensive back who spent only one year in his program.
“Of all the quarterbacks I’ve ever had, he is the coolest customer that there is,” Weiner said. “He is virtually unflappable.”
Bulls first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell is even more succinct.
“I just think he has that ‘it’ factor.”
This is the 19-year-old upon whom the Bulls’ hopes for this autumn suddenly hinge.
Summoned with his team trailing by 11 in the second half against Georgia Tech, McCloud provided a palpable offensive spark, throwing a 20-yard scoring pass on his first attempt and nearly rallying the Bulls in a 14-10 loss.
Then in his first collegiate start two Saturdays ago against the Football Championship Subdivision’s South Carolina State, he totaled 273 yards and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in a 55-16 romp. The lasting image is of McCloud getting pressure from his blind side, stepping up in the pocket, and tossing a deep ball over the middle to Johnny Ford for a 42-yard TD in the first quarter.
“Instead of flushing out and running or throwing it underneath or something, he steps over real quietly with his feet, keeps his head down the field and makes a (42-yard) throw for a touchdown,” Bell said.
“Those little things there are just sort of the ‘it’ factor that you have, a feel for the game.”
Those intangibles seemed destined to brandish themselves somewhere other than behind center. The second-oldest of Ray and Lisa McCloud’s four kids, Jordan grew up playing defensive back and tailback, the position at which older brother Ray-Ray flourished.
He had no interest in quarterback as a prepubescent with the Packers of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. He was a 145-pound Sickles High freshman in 2014, the year Ray-Ray became Hillsborough County’s all-time rushing leader; and a defensive back the following season.
“In little league, (quarterback) is not something you like because you don’t really throw the ball,” he said.
But his gravitation to the position was inevitable. By 2016, former Sickles quarterback Chris Oladokun had moved on (to USF), leaving the spot wide open. If new Gryphons coach Patrick Murphy’s instincts didn’t tell him McCloud was his guy, everyone else on campus did.
“When I took the job coming out of Nashville, everybody ― players, parents and even some teachers ― pretty much said, ‘Jordan McCloud, he’s gonna be your quarterback,’” Murphy recalled.
“He had a good arm, he had fairly good mechanics, and it was about really just trying to get his mind right for our system.”
Behind their first-year starter, the Gryphons won four of their first five games, but ultimately had to forfeit all four for inadvertently using an ineligible player. They won only one of their last four, but McCloud still finished with 1,600 passing yards.
“He’ll sit in the pocket,” Murphy said. “If he knows he’s got a guy breaking open, and he’s got a guy running right at him, he’ll take the shot to make the throw. His toughness and mind for the game were really good for not having that much experience.”
Enamored with his new position, McCloud transferred to Plant for his senior year to try and develop further under Weiner’s tutelage. Though not guaranteed a starting job, he distanced himself pretty early in a three-player derby.
He then led Plant to a 9-1 regular season. A week before the Lakeland game, in a second-round playoff contest at Viera, he struggled at the outset before engineering a 92-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes for a 22-18 triumph.
Weiner recalls McCloud hitting Carvajal on a textbook wheel route on the drive’s opening play, then finding tight end Judge Culpepper ― who had opted to bend his route against single-high coverage ― to reach the Viera red zone.
“We have never hit the bender route on this,” Weiner recalled. “And this was one where Jordan just stood in the pocket. This is like, craziness going on. ... He stands in the pocket and drills Judge on this bender route for about 24 yards.”
By the time Plant’s 12-2 season ended with a 24-19 state semifinals loss at Bartram Trail (when he nearly rallied the Panthers again), McCloud had completed 54 percent of his passes for 2,426 yards and 26 TDs. Three weeks later, he signed with the Bulls.
He redshirted last season, which ended with Oladokun and fellow veteran backup Brett Kean transferring. In spring practice, he asserted himself as the No. 2 guy behind Blake Barnett, impressing Bell with his blend of mobility, moxie and arm strength.
“He’s really super smart,” Weiner said.
In the wake of his inspiring relief effort at Georgia Tech and prosperous starting debut against South Carolina State, coach Charlie Strong proclaimed McCloud as the unquestioned starter going forward.
“Really, he’s been thrown into one game, and being in the one game, there’s gonna be room for improvement,” Strong said. “So with each game it just becomes bigger and bigger. So we’ll just see how he begins to handle that as we get into the stretch that we’re gonna take.”
Who knows what transpires in that stretch. Ebbs and flows are sure to abound, especially as the level of competition intensifies, starting today against unbeaten SMU. Fans probably shouldn’t expect McCloud to routinely flourish.
But they shouldn’t expect him to flinch either.
“Obviously they won this (South Carolina State) game pretty handily,” Weiner said. “But I know in the big moments, he’s got some cool things destined for him and the Bulls as well.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.