McClellion plays for fallen role model

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Arkansas cornerback Jarques McClellion is shown during the third quarter of a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Little Rock.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas cornerback Jarques McClellion is shown during the third quarter of a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Little Rock.

— Greg Bryant was driving his stepfather’s black four-door Chrysler from a club south on I-95 in South Florida in the early hours of May 7, 2016, when the vehicle behind him flickered its lights.

It was Mother’s Day weekend, and Bryant, an electrifying football talent at American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Fla., who signed with Notre Dame and later transferred and committed to help revitalize a once-dormant Alabama-Birmingham program, had planned to return home to surprise his mother. He never got the chance.

The trailing car sped up alongside Bryant’s and let off a flurry of rounds in his direction. “The car looked like it had been hit a million times,” one source said. Bryant was shot in the head and back by the unknown assailant in West Palm Beach at Okeechobee Boulevard. His passenger, a childhood friend, suffered minor injuries. Bryant was pronounced dead one day later.

Arkansas cornerback Jarques McClellion, a Delray Beach native just months away from beginning his senior year at American Heritage at the time, lost a role model in Bryant, described as poetry in motion with the ball in his hands and a people person away from the field. McClellion was taking the SAT when he got the call, he said. After finishing up, he called his mother, and the two rushed to the hospital, where he saw Bryant’s father cry for the first time.

“You see the movies where you see the jock and see everyone around him praising him, then you’ll see he’s got a bad background, like bullying somebody — no,” McClellion said. “Greg was the all-around person off the field. He had everyone in the neighborhood looking up to him, and he never did nothing wrong, I feel like. He was just that dude who was going to be a legend forever.

“He was a legend at Delray Beach. He’s a legend in south Florida. He was Mr. Florida.”

Bryant’s passing was a motivator for McClellion his senior season. He went all out, he said, and played both ways, finishing with 46 tackles and 21 pass breakups. Offensively, he caught four touchdown passes. He then signed with Arkansas over an impressive list of offers that included Florida, Louisville, Michigan State, Nebraska and others. Arkansas was love at first sight, he said.

McClellion will carry Bryant’s memory with him every step in 2019, too. He wore No. 24 last fall as a tribute to his cousin Brandon Flowers, who played cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. But McClellion made the switch to No. 4 this spring. It was only right.

“Greg wore No. 4 from Little League all the way to high school,” he said. “There was just something about it. Watching him play, wearing No. 4, like, that’s Greg. It’s a lot to live up to, and I feel like me wearing that No. 4, I know every day when I get on the field that I can’t be average. I can’t. If you’re not going to be great, OK, you can give this jersey to somebody else.”

McClellion redshirted in 2017 and was home on Thanksgiving break when news broke that Bret Bielema, the man who recruited him to Arkansas, had been fired moments after a season-ending loss to Missouri. Initially, he was mad and found the situation unfair, but he went with the flow, ultimately reaching out to a cousin, Darrion Richardson (now Darrion Millines), a defensive back who played for Chad Morris at SMU.

“Just believe in the process,” Richardson told McClellion. “Coach Morris knows what he’s doing. He’s going to build a championship team, so just make sure you make the right decision.”

After more conversations with defensive coordinator John Chavis and secondary coach Ron Cooper, McClellion elected to stay at Arkansas and “be another legend created by this process.” He saw the field early in 2018 following the departure of cornerback Chevin Calloway and Britto Tutt’s undisclosed injury. McClellion played in all 12 games and started nine, recording 21 solo tackles and seven pass breakups.

Playing opposite then-junior corner Ryan Pulley, he knew opposing quarterbacks would target him, and he felt as if he was being picked on at first. But, again, McClellion drew on his south Florida roots and recalled 7-on-7 matchups with current Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy, the 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner, and Calvin and Riley Ridley, now on rosters of the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears, respectively.

“Going against those three taught me a lot, like how to play and how to be more confident,” he said. “Like, if I went against these dudes … you’ve got to play at a high level, or you’re going to get embarrassed. (Last season) I just felt, OK, I’m just another cornerback out there and I’m going to prove to these other quarterbacks and receivers that I’m the best out here.

“That’s what I tried to show last year, and that’s what I’m going to try to keep doing this year.”

McClellion, who won a poetry contest in high school and is known to write poetry to keep his mind right and find a sense of calm, has been challenged by Arkansas’ staff to become a vocal leader in a secondary that features young pieces and fresh faces like Greg Brooks and Devin Bush. Last season, he stayed quiet, hesitant to step on the toes of older players, and played his role with Santos Ramirez and Pulley leading the way.

With them now out of the picture, Morris wants McClellion to be more dominant in the back end of the defense.

“He wants me to try to lead this team not into a black hole, but to a better spot,” McClellion said. “I’m turning into that leader and lockdown cornerback. We want to make this a team with swag that gets respect. No matter what — first down, second down — we’re going to try to win every battle, and that’s how we’re going to treat every game, like a rivalry game, and take it personally and take it to heart.”

Kam Curl established himself as a leader at safety this spring, and as of Arkansas’ Red-White game, Joe Foucha manned the opposite safety spot. Sophomore Montaric Brown progressed at corner this spring and quickly picked up on techniques it takes some corners years to grasp, McClellion said.

“I know he’s not going to disappoint — on the field or off the field,” he said of Brown. “On the field he has a lot to prove, and so do I, so there are things about Buster that people just need to see.

“We should be one of the best duos in college football, but we’ve just got to keep working to let it be known.”

This article originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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