One day at work inside the CNN Center in Atlanta, a flyer caught the eye of Annette Johnson. The Atlanta Xplosion, an all-female football team competing in the Independent Women’s Football League, needed players.
“I was like, ‘I’m too girly for this,’ but coming from serving in the military, running track and field in high school, running track in the military, I went out for it. I made the team,” Johnson said.
For three seasons in the early part of this century Johnson played for the Xplosion. She was a running back until a fractured thumb made her decide to hang her cleats up for good. But during her short career she often would bring her two sons to the team’s practices three times a week.
One of those sons is Jamal Haynes, a former wide receiver now starting at running back – the same position he watched his mom play nearly 15 years ago – at Georgia Tech.
“I feel like it came full circle,” Haynes said.
Haynes’ rise to the top of Tech’s depth chart has been as impressive as it has been surprising.
A sophomore, Haynes came back to campus this summer ready to begin his third season with the Yellow Jackets as a wide receiver. He had seen the field in 11 games but mostly was an afterthought in Tech’s offensive game plans.
When preseason practice began in August, Haynes found himself among a group of wide receivers that included a host of new and experienced transfers coupled with a pair of highly touted freshmen. Tech’s offensive coaches, to their credit, still saw the potential in Haynes to be a difference-maker for the Jackets.
After the first week of preseason camp, Haynes found himself in the backfield.
“I was actually excited,” Haynes said of the position switch. “It’s always a good thing to be able to play multiple positions, it gives you a better knowledge of the game, and honestly, that transition from wide receiver to running back made the game a whole lot easier.”
Haynes first played quarterback in youth football growing up in Gwinnett County. He then moved to running back as he prepared to begin his prep career at Grayson High School. As an underclassman, Haynes then began to work with a personal trainer to develop his skills at route running and pass catching. Going into his sophomore season with the Rams he had made the full transition to wideout.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Haynes became a prominent piece in Grayson’s dominant program and for a 2020 team that went 14-0 and won the Class 7A state championship. Haynes totaled 97 career receptions for 1,417 yards and made plays as a receiver, running back, kick returner and, even at times, a pass thrower.
Yet recruiting never fully took off for Haynes. His relatively small size, he acknowledges, was a factor, as was an injury during his sophomore season. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the spring and summer before his senior season in 2020 didn’t help his cause, either.
Haynes said the first and only official visit he took, to Tech, happened to come right before the height of the pandemic. Maryland, Pittsburgh and Purdue were reported to be the only other schools to offer Haynes a scholarship.
“Georgia Tech, honestly just felt like a place to be for life after football,” he said. “Getting a degree from Georgia Tech was one of the biggest things that made me commit here.”
Haynes goes into Saturday’s game at No. 17 Ole Miss, a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on SEC Network, as Tech’s leading rusher with 164 yards on 20 carries. He also has six receptions for 58 yards and a 31-yard kickoff return. His 8.2 yards per carry ranks eighth nationally and leads the ACC.
In a 48-13 win over South Carolina State on Saturday, Haynes ran in a 4-yard score for his first collegiate touchdown.
“(Haynes) is somebody that’s a matchup guy. Whether he’s at running back or receiver, catching the ball in space, his value on special teams, he’s able to do things with the ball,” Tech coach Brent Key said. “He’s tough. He’s tough to bring down. He loves playing the game. He’s as excited as anybody. He comes out of the game, yeah, he wants to be in there, he wants the ball, but when that next person’s in there and they get the touch, he’s just as excited for those guys and fired up for them.”
Haynes’ early-season success has been all that more notable in the sense that his move to running back didn’t automatically give him the starting job. Veteran Dontae Smith, who ranks in the top 40 for career rushing yards at Tech, and transfer Trey Cooley, who already had put together a solid resume at Louisville, were expected to get the bulk of carries in coordinator Buster Faulkner’s offense.
Instead, Haynes leads the Jackets with 20 carries and is on pace to flirt with a 1,000-yard rushing campaign. But don’t talk about those numbers with him – Haynes is not big on individual statistics.
“I’ve always been a team player, always been one of those guys who just wants to win. Anyway I can help the team win, that’s really what I want to bring to the team,” he said. “Stats is something that comes as the team wins. If you win, your stats might go up. It will go up. I’m all about winning, honestly. I just want to win.”
Haynes is studying business and information technology and has an interest in going into the cybersecurity field. But for now there’s a lot of football ahead for the formerly unknown back who has burst onto the scene for the Jackets.
“I am ecstatic, but most importantly I’m blessed,” Johnson said of Haynes’ success. “I’m blessed that he’s able to continue to live out his dream of playing football at the next level. From here it can only go up.”