Jets X-Factor speaks to the high school coaches of top 2022 NFL draft prospects
Something that is essential to understand about the game of American football is that the relationship between a player and their coach is extremely important. It’s why Adam Gase was torn apart for his apparent lack of a relationship with his team. It’s why players line up to play for guys like John Harbaugh every offseason.
And it’s also why, at any level of play, an athlete’s coach can provide some of the best insight as to who they are as a person and player.
As things stand now, the New York Jets are currently set to hold not one, but two selections in the top ten and maybe even top five of the 2022 NFL draft. Naturally, that range is loaded with talent, and despite still being months away from draft season, the prospects who will settle in at the top are starting to come into focus.
While offensive players dominated the top of the first round in last year’s draft, it would appear that defense is key this year.
To get to know some of these young men, Jets X-Factor was able to obtain exclusive interviews with their coaches from their high school football days.
The coaches kind enough to speak with us were Charles Cross (Kayvon Thibodeaux’s coach), Alan Chadwick (Kyle Hamilton’s coach), Jon Filiatraut (Aidan Hutchinson’s coach), and Neil Weiner (Derek Stingley’s coach).
Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
Coach Charles Cross of Oaks Christian High School looks back on his time coaching defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux very fondly. He himself stands at 5-foot-9, so needless to say, the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Thibodeaux towers over him.
“It feels like I’m standing next to my bodyguard,” he says with a chuckle. “His length… It’s unfair, if you think about it. And if you also couple that with his athleticism and quick lateral foot speed, you’ve got a pretty good football player.”
Without a consensus top quarterback in this draft class, Thibodeaux is widely projected to be the number one overall pick.
“He plays with a lot of energy and passion,” says Collins, recalling the impact the addition of Thibodeaux had on his football team. “When you get a guy on the team like that, you start to see them all play with that same passion. Before you knew it, they all were playing with that same edge, same intensity.”
That kind of fire and passion for the game of football, particularly when it resides in a player with the physical gifts of Thibodeaux, can be a dangerous weapon when the stakes are the highest. In three career Pac-12 Championship Games at Oregon, Thibodeaux has recorded a combined 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.
Thibodeaux’s talent is not in question — he’s likely already cemented as a top pick in 2022 — but what kind of a person is he? Is he the kind of player coaches want to have in their locker room?
“He’s an incredibly selfless guy… the kind of guy who could be friends with any student on campus, regardless of his popularity,” says Collins. “Kayvon’s got jokes too. He’s got some comedian in him.” Collins laughs and then adds, “He thinks he can dance, but that he cannot.”
It’s also worth noting that Thibodeaux, or “KT”, as Collins affectionately calls him, was a 3.8 student at Oaks Christian, and according to Collins, takes academics very seriously.
It goes without saying that the Jets would love to get a player like Thibodeaux on their defense. Lining him up opposite Carl Lawson next season would give Josh Allen and Mac Jones serious nightmares.
The only question is whether he’ll be there for the taking when Gang Green goes on the clock.
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
Coach Alan Chadwick of Marist School in Georgia describes his former safety Kyle Hamilton as a guy who oozes confidence and prefers to lead by example — think C.J. Mosley.
Chadwick, who also happens to have coached Sean McVay when the latter was a high school quarterback, knew Hamilton was special from a young age.
“Even in the seventh or eighth grade, we noticed that he was an extremely good tackler as a safety,” recounts Chadwick with a thick southern drawl. “One of the other coaches, who was actually a former Notre Dame player himself, looked at me and said, ‘he’s going to be the best tackling safety you’ve ever had,’ and he was right.” Chadwick paused before adding, “We always relied on him to do so much.”
So has Notre Dame. In his time playing for the Irish, Hamilton, a junior, has recorded 138 total tackles (97 solo), 17 passes defended, and eight interceptions. Additionally, this year he was voted one of just three captains on Notre Dame’s defense.
“You don’t become a captain unless you do things right on and off the field,” says Chadwick. “Your work ethic, your preparation, and your commitment to the game has to be exceptional.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t even football that most people originally expected Hamilton to fall in love with.
“He was always a very, very good basketball player… That’s what we all thought he was going to be, was a basketball player,” recalls Chadwick. “But then around his sophomore year, that’s kind of when he just started to take over and he realized he enjoyed football more.”
The thing about Hamilton in this draft class is that despite being a safety, he’s quite likely to be a top ten pick — he’s just that talented. But many question the value of taking a safety so high in the draft when other, more impactful positions are still available.
According to Chadwick, Hamilton is the rare player who’s 100 percent worth it.
“He’s everything you want at the safety position… As an offensive coach, we always view the free safety as ‘the great eraser.’ Someone who can make that play to make the opponent have to snap it again. And that’s what Kyle brought to us, is he could cover other people’s mistakes. He could make a tackle, or make a pass coverage over the top that would make them have to snap it again. And if somebody broke away on the far side of the field, he could chase them down with a good angle and make a play. So we always considered him the great eraser for us.”
The Jets undeniably have other needs than just safety. But with Marcus Maye coming off an Achilles injury and general manager Joe Douglas showing a hesitancy to pay the position, don’t be surprised if Gang Green decides it could use a “great eraser” of its own come April.
Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan
A favorite on Jets Twitter, many fans are hoping the football gods find a way to bring Hutchinson to the Big Apple. He is, after all, from Dearborn, Michigan, the same hometown as head coach Robert Saleh.
Talking to John Filiatraut, head coach of Divine Child High School, it’s immediately evident how highly he thinks of his former superstar pass rusher.
“Aidan was a freshman the year I took over at Divine Child. Aidan’s work ethic and just his personality, it’s infectious.”
Filiatraut says Hutchinson earned his respect very early on when he started playing Varsity as a sophomore.
“Even as a young guy, the way he went about his business, his approach, his enthusiasm, his emotion level… Aidan is invested in football, and that’s infectious. Aidan plays hard, he’s a terrific teammate. All those things help build culture in a locker room. And from hearing Coach Harbaugh talk, he’s done the same thing at Michigan.”
Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh love that kind of player, and could very well end up falling in love with Hutchinson throughout the draft process. Filiatraut believes the 21-year-old would be a fantastic fit in the New York City market and a fan favorite.
“He’s so approachable. He’s your everyday guy. He’s your neighbor who’s out there cutting his grass, or you know, he’s cutting the neighbor’s lawn because he’s a kid trying to make twenty bucks. He’s such a regular person, and seeing him grow since he’s been thirteen or fourteen until now, you see how special that is. He’s still just himself.”
Filiatraut recalls reading some comments Hutchinson made to the media last Spring when he made the decision to return to Michigan for his senior year. He was essentially saying that a huge reason he returned was so he could finally beat Ohio State or “die trying.”
“He meant that! That’s real for him!” says Filiatraut, laughing. “If nothing else, Aidan is authentic. And I think that’s why he’s such a good leader, is because he doesn’t make it up. It’s not just talk for him, the guy wants to be great, and you’ve seen that grow in him over the years.”
Hutchinson indeed meant what he said. Michigan beat Ohio State 42-27, snapping an eight-game win streak for the Buckeyes.
In the victory, Hutchinson was dominant, recording three sacks to go with 15 quarterback pressures — the most ever recorded by a college football player in a single game since Pro Football Focus began tracking the stat in 2014. He also broke Michigan’s school record for most sacks in a season with 13.
Deservedly, Hutchinson is rocketing up draft boards. The fact that Detroit sits all alone at the top of the NFL draft order could potentially mean Hutchinson jumping Thibodeaux for the first overall pick (teams love drafting hometown talent). There is, however, still a long way to go until the draft.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Remember when everybody thought the Jets’ cornerback room was the team’s biggest weakness before the 2021 season started?
The emergence of Bryce Hall, Michael Carter II, and Brandin Echols has changed that outlook to some extent. However, it still feels like the Jets are missing that true number one lockdown corner they’ve been in search of since Darelle Revis.
Head Coach Neil Weiner of The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana believes his former player Derek Stingley would end that search.
“Growing up, when other kids were probably playing with Tonka trucks or playing video games, Derek was catching and throwing a football with his dad.”
Stingley played all over the field for Dunham, including punt returner when he was just in eighth grade. That versatility, Weiner thinks, is what’s given the 20-year-old his other-worldly ball skills that have been on full display during his time down the street at LSU.
Something that isn’t exactly on full display to the public, but is still of the utmost importance is Stingley’s work ethic.
“Derek was our hardest working guy,” says Weiner. “When his junior season ended after we got eliminated in the state quarter-final round, the next Monday, I showed up to school, he’s already out there on the field getting work in. There’s no days off for Derek. His work ethic is inspiring.”
Weiner also recounts a particular story from when Stingley was a junior in high school.
“We had an eighth grader, rising ninth grader who was in the weight room working out, and Derek looked over and noticed he didn’t have a spotter. So Derek left from his spot, went to go spot the young little fourteen-year-old and to encourage him. Nobody told him to do that, he didn’t say ‘everybody look at me, look how I’m doing this,’ but I noticed it from a distance. He really would lead by example.”
A Jets pairing of Stingley with Hall would have incredible potential — imagine the next era of Darelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. As the team racks up disappointing defensive performances like its most recent one against Philadelphia, a pairing like that could look extra enticing for Robert Saleh.
The top of this 2022 NFL draft class is looking very promising indeed. This is particularly true for teams like the Jets, who are in desperate need of a talent infusion on the defensive side of the ball.
There’s still a fair amount of football left to be played this season and plenty can still change in terms of draft order, but regardless, the Jets should be feeling pretty hopeful about the caliber of player they’ll be able to grab not one, but two of, come April.