Football: Speedy Roberts looks to make outsized impact

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

There’s only one word to describe Jelani Roberts on the football field: fast.

The wide receiver has speed in spades, and at a scant 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, Roberts needs every extra step he can get. His official 40-yard dash time is 4.39 seconds, one of the best in this year’s recruiting class according to ESPN, but Roberts says he’s been timed as low as 4.35 seconds.

“My speed,” Roberts said when asked what his greatest asset was. “That allows me to make big plays.”

A player Roberts’ size couldn’t survive on a football field without possessing exceptional athleticism, and that’s exactly what pops out when looking at his measurables or watching his highlights. In addition to his wheels, Roberts has a 41.8-inch vertical leap, best among wide receiver recruits in this year’s class according to ESPN.

And his highlights play like a defense’s gag reel. There’s clip after clip of Roberts simply out-running every other player on the field, and even more of him using his small frame and agility to make defenders whiff on tackles.

The comparisons to former Wildcats running back Venric Mark are obvious, and in fact that’s one of the reasons Roberts chose Northwestern.

“Seeing someone close to my size succeed there had a big impact,” he said.

Roberts, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, is joined in this year’s recruiting class by cornerback Alonzo Mayo, a fellow Gilman School product. Despite the two playing opposing positions, Roberts says there isn’t too much of a rivalry between them.

“Alonzo and I have known each other since we were pretty young, since elementary school,” Roberts said. “It’s really cool to have someone coming in who you know.”

A familiar face will be a welcome sight for Roberts because all players have to make adjustments when they transition to college and into playing the college game, and it comes as no surprise Roberts is most worried about going up against bigger defenders.

But he should have some experience from playing his second-favorite sport, basketball. Clearly Roberts has never let his size hold him back.

“I was a pretty good player for a while,” he said, jokingly, regarding basketball. “I’m not so great now.”

At his size, Roberts won’t turn heads walking down Sheridan Road like some of the taller members of the football team, but that’s probably good for someone who, for the most part, seems like he wants to fit in.

Roberts said what he’s most excited about for college is getting to campus and meeting new people. When he isn’t preoccupied with football, he likes to play video games or hang out with friends. And his favorite football memory isn’t one big play or one important win; it’s the camaraderie of his senior year locker room.

“Going into senior year, going into training camp, we were in the locker room one day,” Roberts said. “Everybody was in there just listening to music and having a ton of fun, and you could really see the team gelling.”

Reserved off the field, Roberts projects to make plenty of noise on it. Despite his size, he’s likely to stay at receiver in order to avoid NU’s crowded backfield. But regardless of whether he’s catching passes, running jet sweeps or returning kicks, he’ll almost certainly make an impact with his speed.

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