When Bruce Arians was first hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in January, one of the first topics he spoke about was “finding diamonds in the rough”.
You have to search for them. You have to dig for them. But sometimes, they surface on their own.
Jelani Irby may be one of the latter.
Irby’s story is unique. He first started school in 2008 at Central State University, a Division II school in Ohio, but a back injury forced him to sit out training camp. It didn’t work out at CSU, so he decided to transfer to Dean College, one of the nation’s top JUCO programs.
Like a lot of instances in life, Irby was hit with a major curveball at Dean. After his first year, the offensive coordinator that was responsible for recruiting him decide to retire.
“Everything was fine, going into the next spring, I hear coach brought in a new offensive coordinator,” Irby told me in an interview. “The offensive coordinator that helped recruit me and half the offense - he ended up retiring.”
“We had no idea. He just left.”
The coach that was brought in to replace him decided to cut Irby and a lot of his teammates. He stripped their financial aid packages, as well.
“It definitely opens your eyes right away,” Irby said.
Without any financial support and no team to play for, Irby had to search for any kind of opportunity to get back to playing football. He was able to get into the University of Kentucky and finally caught a break when Andre Woodson, former quarterback for the Wildcats, helped him get a chance to walk on for the football team.
Irby showed out and made the team.
That’s right. He was going to have a chance to play in the SEC, one of the nation’s best conferences. All it took was work - something he was already used to - to get to where he needed to be.
There was an added bonus in the fact that Kentucky also held one of the nation’s top Kinesiology programs, which was Irby’s major. Everything seemed to finally come together.
Except there was another curveball.
One of Irby’s advisors back at Dean incorrectly filed some paperwork that led to Irby becoming ineligible to play for Kentucky.
He appealed, but he couldn’t get through the SEC or NCAA.
“I wasn’t happy and I think it was safe to say my mother wasn’t happy, either. I was lowkey heartbroken. I had to try and figure out what was next.”
That didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream, though. He was able to find a roster spot on the Cincinnati Flex, an indoor football team that went all the way to the championship game with Irby on the roster.
He played wide receiver, defensive back, and special teams during that 2017 season. The shortened field (width-wise) unexpectedly helped him improve his game and give him even more confidence that he was able to get to the next level.
These days, you can find Irby relentlessly working on his game while coaching high school football. It’s a grind, but he finds a way to get it done.
His motivation - aside from within - comes from a promise he made to his grandmother when he was a child.
“A Monday Night Football commercial came on. I just remember, she saw the look in my eye - I played a bunch of different sports - but football just did something different for me. She saw a look in my eye when I saw that commercial. She was just like, ‘You love football, you and that football. I feel like that’s what you’re going to do’.”
“She was just talking to me like grandmas usually do, but then the tone of her voice got deeper. The same commercial came on the next day and she was just like, ‘I want you to promise me that you’ll never give up on your dreams for anybody. There are people in our family or people outside of our family who would give up. I don’t want that for you. You are one of my strongest grandchildren’.”
“There are a lot of things I don’t even remember from when I was seven, but that was definitely something I was meant to remember. She made me promise to never give up.”
Confident. Gritty. Motivated. Dedicated.
There are plenty more words that could describe Irby, but maybe the best one would be relentless.
Irby possess decent size at 6-foot, 186-pounds and has 4.4 speed. He is a technician when it comes to route running and he obviously has the heart and work ethic to make it through the rigors of a season in the NFL.
Check out some of his tape of his route running/footwork and time with the Flex below:
It’s not like the Bucs are strangers to UDFA receivers, either. Adam Humphries went undrafted out of Clemson back in 2015 and just signed a huge contract with the Tennessee Titans, proving that hard work does in fact pay off.
And there have been numerous cases where it’s not just about what you can do on the field, either. A strong locker room presence, a leader on the field, a player who can hold egos in check - sometimes, those traits matter just as much as the ability to catch the ball.
Irby knows this. That’s why he’s made himself into a leader on top of a hard worker. It’s important that you lead by example, which is what he does everyday as he coaches in the high school ranks.
“I think it’s refreshing for them to have a receiver coach that’s not just telling them how to run a route, but I’m out there running a route and they’re seeing me doing that. My receiver coach was like that.”
“It’s great for them because they see their coach putting in the work, that he’s on the grind.”
Coaching also helps keep his mind around the game, which is ever-changing in all ranks throughout the country. It’s probably safe to bet that as long as Irby is around football in some capacity, then he’d be a happy man.
Irby’s story is starting catch word around the country, as well. Last year, the Steelers Wire mentioned him and here recently both the Cat Scratch Reader and the Seahawks Wire have shared his story.
For Irby, having his name mentioned in the Steelers Wire with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and others was like a dream come true.
“It was a great moment for me because it’s like one of the top media outlets in the world. I’m just like, man, that is crazy. First of all, my name is in the headline and second, it’s next to them.”
“It’s just been humbling that people are starting to recognize what I’m trying to do.”
Could the Bucs have a use for Irby on their roster? I’m not in the coaches rooms or in any type of meetings, so I wouldn’t know.
But I can tell you this, just based off what I know and have heard, there’s no reason I wouldn’t at least give him a look. As Arians has said, “you won’t find any diamonds in the rough that are standing on the sidelines.”
It doesn’t have to be Tampa Bay in the end though, it can be anywhere. Irby is well aware that the NFL is a business, but if he can just get the chance somewhere, then all bets are off when it comes to living his dream.
All we ask for in life is that one chance to prove ourselves.
Maybe it’s about time Irby received his.