By Ty Parker
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a day where families gather to celebrate the blessings in life as they consume irrationally large amounts of food while also satisfying their appetite for football. The holiday serves as a day of reflection for many to give thanks for life’s blessings.
For Texas Tech junior inside receiver Jakeem Grant, Thanksgiving Day 2013 provided him with ample time for reflection. In fact, despite being surrounded by 100,668 burnt orange-clad football fanatics, Grant was forced to reflect more than he ever would have imagined.
The Texas Tech football team travelled to Austin last Thanksgiving to take on in-state rival Texas for a nationally televised contest between two squads going in opposite directions. The Longhorns, after starting the season 1-2, had won 7 of their last 8 games. The Red Raiders, who jumped out to a 7-0 start, had lost four straight.
On this Thursday night, however, Grant spent the day on the sidelines as Texas Tech’s offense managed just nine points against an aggressive Longhorn defense en route to a 41-16 setback at Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium.
Grant was benched and did not record a single catch. Sophomore quarterback Davis Webb, who also watched the game from the sideline, spent the day at Grant’s side looking on as the offense was forced to punt seven times and committed three turnovers.
Webb has since been able to turn adversity into motivation, eventually winning back the starting quarterback job, and says Grant’s response to his benching on Thanksgiving 2013 is the main reason Grant is the weapon he has become.
“He had some adversity to work through when he got benched,” Webb said. “That was one of the biggest games of the year. It really hurt him and made him work even harder. Since then, he hasn’t taken one day for granted. That’s the most exciting thing about Jakeem is that he knows any play can be his last, so he work’s his butt off every day.”
Grant, listed at only 5-6, is known for his small size and the excitement he brings any time he has the ball in his hands. He turns his stature and blazing speed into advantages and uses them to get around defenders in the open field.
As Webb alluded to, it isn’t Grant’s physical tools, but his mentality that has emerged as the reason for his progress and Grant believes his attitude is an asset all its own.
“You have to have the desire,” Grant said. “Just because you’re small, that doesn’t mean anything. You have walk-on guys that sometimes don’t have as much ability, but they can earn a spot on the job because of their attitude and effort. If you have the attitude, effort, and heart then you can go out there and play with those big guys.”
This mentality has helped Grant emerge as one of the Red Raider’s main offensive threats this season. The departure of tight-end Jace Amaro to the NFL and wide-out Eric Ward to graduation left the Red Raiders with a few voids to fill this season, both in catching passes and in leadership.
That experience last Thanksgiving allowed Grant to realize he needed to take the next step in his progression as a leader on the team.
“My role has increased a lot,” Grant said. “Being an older guy and stepping up to be a leader is great. The young guys are looking up to me because of the plays I have made. That leadership role, they’re expecting that from me.”
Grant says he is more of a leader-by-example than the yelling type, but said he doesn’t hesitate to correct the younger receivers if they are doing things incorrectly.
Senior wideout Bradley Marquez, who has also stepped up as one of the Red Raiders’ premier pass-catchers this season, says Grant’s ability, size, and toughness have helped give his fellow receiver credibility with the team.
“When he speaks, everyone listens,” Marquez said. “He is a great leader and a guy that everyone can look to. He plays a lot bigger than he actually is. He is relentless in the run game loves to go block those big linebackers. If you see a small guy like that go in there and take on those kinds of guys, it motivates everyone else.”
With renewed focus on the opportunities in front of him, Grant’s speed and quickness have been on full display this season. He is second in the Big 12 in receptions, fourth in receiving yards and is on pace to score 10 touchdown and eclipse 1000 receiving yards for the first time in his career.
Although Grant wasn’t blessed with much size, he is thankful for his speed and loves to utilize his unique skill-set over the middle of the field.
“I definitely enjoy it,” said Grant. “Those big guys aren’t used to tackling guys like me. There aren’t a lot of 5-6 guys in the country, so I use my speed and quickness to my advantage and get around those big guys. I’m not that big guy like Jace (Amaro) that can take on the big hits, so I have to do whatever in my power to make those guys miss.”
Grant’s ability to overcome adversity is a skill the entire Texas Tech program will need to utilize this season. After starting the 2014 campaign with two close wins over Central Arkansas and UTEP, the Red Raiders have fallen in each of their last four games for the program’s worst start since 1994.
That year, the team fell to 2-4 but rallied for four straight wins and a trip to the Cotton Bowl. Grant believes the team can manage a similar feat this season if they continue to work hard and come together as a team.
“I feel like we are turning the corner and coming together as a unit,” Grant said. “We just need to get everyone going all out for each other. You never know when it’s your turn to get the ball and you need the guy next to you to make a block or you need someone to help you make a tackle. We have to step up as leaders and get the team to play for each other.”
The Red Raiders need to look no further than Grant for an example on how to overcome adversity.
Whether from a lack of size or from the setback against the Longhorns, Grant has been able to battle through adversity and become a reliable weapon for the Red Raiders.
His progression has not only proven beneficial to Texas Tech’s offense this season, but Grant believes it has given him a chance to be yet another great in a long line of small receivers in Lubbock and to set the example for those behind him to follow.
“I want to leave a mark for the little guys that are coming up.” Grant said. “I’ve done it, Coach (Eric) Morris has done it, Wes Welker has done it, Danny Amendola has done it. Overall, I want to go down with those guys as one of the best inside receivers to ever play at Tech.”