YOUNGSTOWN — It’s 5am on a weekday morning in the Mahoning Valley, and Youngstown State football coach Doug Phillips arrives at Stambaugh Stadium.
While Phillips goes into the football offices under the facility’s home team, Jaleel McLaughlin returns to the locker room after an individual training session at Beede Field. That precedes a day of lifting, filming and practicing, but it’s almost routine for McLaughlin at this point.
“People don’t understand how much time he spends on the football pitch – even when we’re not training – what he’s doing in the weight room, his strength and all that training.” Phillips said. “It’s definitely something young people look up to and hopefully they’ll follow in his footsteps.”
The hard work pays off as the Youngstown State star rusher nears the NCAA record books. With 7,855 career yards after Saturday’s 95-yard rush at Illinois State, he’s just 219 yards away from becoming the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader in all divisions.
Nate Kmic holds the record for 8,074 yards. Kmic’s career at Mount Union lasted from 2005 to 2008.
“That’s going to be something big that I want to achieve — definitely something I want to achieve, not just for myself, but for everyone around me who’s going on the offensive.” said the 5-foot-9, 183-pound jam. “The tight ends and receivers blocking downfield, the quarterbacks and coaches and just for the town of Youngstown. I think that would be something great for them to achieve. I’ll just keep working and can’t wait to get there.”
While his speed on the field is evident every Saturday, it’s that work-first mentality that separates him as a backlog, according to his coaching staff. In addition to those early-morning ladder exercises and individual workouts, it was commonplace for Phillips to hear that McLaughlin had run the stairs at the stadium at midnight the night before.
The trick, Phillips noted, early on was getting McLaughlin to slow down — or at least back up.
“So you really had to be like, ‘Hey, we need to take care of our bodies. We need to feed it nutrients and rest.’” said Philip. “But he really believes that work ethic, or going out on the field and doing a tour, going through every single game and the footwork… he really believes those are the things that will help him be successful.”
Phillips added, “He’s withdrawn a bit but (Tuesday) morning I got into work at 5am and he comes out the door and I’m wondering what he’s supposed to do. Will he walk a mile? I don’t know, but Jaleel does.”
That drive and motivation goes back to McLaughlin’s years in middle and high school, the senior said. McLaughlin and his family struggled with homelessness in seventh grade and at times lived in a car.
“It gave me a lot of motivation just to see my mom actually smile now and see my mom happy and see my family happy and bring my family together.” said McLaughlin. “Everything we’ve been through, I think, so I’m trying to work as hard as I can so I can see her happy in the stands and see her smiling in the stands.”
He added, “We’ve been through tough times together, but those times don’t last forever. I just want to show my mom and show everyone who’s going through the same trials that we’ve been through this, but you can do it. You can do whatever you set your mind to. … You can do whatever you want, no matter where you come from, no matter what background, no matter how rich, how poor – none of it matters as long as you put your head down and start grinding.
It’s also the same mentality that served McLaughlin when he was under-recruited as a triple athlete from Forest Hills High School, about a 40-minute drive southeast of Charlotte. He also played basketball and ran track and field.
What he has received in offers, he said, is to play in the secondary school. Only one course – Notre Dame College in Euclid – offered it as a traffic jam. So, one Friday night after a basketball game, McLaughlin and his mother made the nine-hour drive from Marshville to Euclid, and McLaughlin found his new home.
The decision definitely paid off. In his two seasons at Notre Dame College, McLaughlin rushed for 4,737 yards and 52 touchdowns. In 2018 he led the NCAA in Rushing and a year later Division II.
But like for so many athletes across the country, COVID-19 forced a change of plans. With schools shutting down in the Notre Dame conference and wanting to compete against the best possible competition, McLaughlin took to the transfer portal.
It didn’t take long for Phillips and his staff to get interested.
“You only had to watch highlights for maybe a minute and then when you got to know who he is as a person… we knew at the time we needed a program changer.” Phillips said. “I think Jaleel brought such a competitive edge to the program, not just in the running back room but also when he walked onto the practice field — to have that lead and be able to demonstrate that on a daily basis, whether it’s in the weight room or on the Practice ground and can show it… If you talk about program changers, he really took us there when we needed it.
On McLaughlin’s side, he saw an opportunity to attend FCS’ toughest conference and saw YSU build a tight-knit culture. He’s also had interest from programs like Duke, but said staying in Ohio was something he wanted to do.
The impact for YSU was immediate.
In the 2021 spring season, McLaughlin earned the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference second-team honors after rushing for 691 yards and five touchdowns in seven games. That fall, he earned third-team All-American honors from The Associated Press and Hero Sports after rushing for 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns.
This season he has rushed for 1,277 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In addition to the home run speed McLaughlin possesses, offensive coordinator Troy Rothenbuhler says McLaughlin’s tenacity, vision and versatility set him apart.
“Everyone looks out for the other side of the ball because at any moment they could reach it with one hand and 80 yards later it’s in the end zone and you don’t even have time to catch your breath because it’s gone.
“What’s great about him is that he’s just so determined and allows us to use him in many, many ways. He’s more than ready to pick up a bolt of lightning. If you need him, he’s more than willing to pick up an Edge guy, all that stuff. It’s just great to coach him.”
As accolades continue to increase on the pitch, Phillips also said he’s seen growth from McLaughlin in the dressing room.
“It’s been fun getting him out of his bubble and seeing his personality grow while he’s here.” Phillips said. “Seeing his humor and seeing him hanging out with our boys now – before that he was very much on his own. He would tell you what does he do on the weekends? I think he once said he stares at four walls and waits for practice or the weight room on Mondays. To see him emerge from that shell and thrive — whether with fans, business leaders, the general public — he’s the one going around shaking hands and introducing himself and saying thank you. Watching him grow was a treat.”
McLaughlin says it’s those off-field relationships that he values the most.
“I’ve built relationships here that I believe will last a lifetime. That’s what makes it so special for me – being able to go on a Friday night and be able to hang out with all the guys, laughing and joking, watching people play Madden and video games and watch games together. Things like that are really the things I will remember.” said McLaughlin.
However, before he dons red and white for the last time and leaves Youngstown, McLaughlin has one more important thing on his to-do list.
“Definitely making the playoffs and having that playoff experience with my brothers,” he said. “I wrote down a whole set of goals earlier this year and they definitely said that. And I just want to keep working to make sure we can do it.”
The Penguins’ search for that post-season spot took a step forward with Saturday’s 19-17 win at Illinois State and continues Saturday at Missouri State.
Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox