By Rachel Eagleton // Athletic Communications
In college football, it is not very often that a safety becomes a household name. However, Florida native Jayron Kearse is challenging this norm every day.
A typical Division I football safety measures up to around 6’0”. Standing at a staggering 6’5”, the strong safety not only dwarfs many of his teammates, but most other safeties around the nation as well. While his size is unusual, Kearse believes his genetics are to blame.
“I get my height from my dad. He is around 6’4”. My mom is not too tall, but she’s pretty tall for a female...she’s 5’8”. Honestly, it is probably a combination of both of them, but I believe it's my dad.”
Size is not the only thing that Kearse’s genetics have helped him with. He also has familial connections to multiple former NFL players. Kearse’s uncle, Jevon Kearse, played for the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. His cousin, Phillip Buchanon, played for many teams, including the Oakland Raiders.
Kearse’s family’s experiences help him navigate through the crazy world of college football. They are able to help him through things in a way that someone who had not been in his shoes before might not be able to.
“It helps me a lot having guys who have been through some of the stuff that I am going through,” admitted Kearse. “It also helps that they have been to the highest level of football, which is where I am trying to go.
“It helps to have my uncle in my ear, trying to help me when I need advice about things that people at home might not be able to answer. I can always go to him and get quality advice from him.”
“My cousin, Phillip, helps me a lot as well. He was a big part of me choosing where I wanted to play college football. He is always texting me motivational things and telling me there are ways to improve and get better.
“Phillip mentored me a lot. He has stayed in my ear about the little things and has kept me in a position where I am able to do something great. He often tells me it is just football…don’t make it bigger than it has to be.”
After guidance from his cousin, Kearse said his college decision became pretty simple.
“When it came down to choosing a school, it was all about where I could contribute right away. I wanted to be around coaches who genuinely cared for me, and this was the best fit for me.”
However, contributing has never been a problem for Kearse, who has made his way around the gridiron. From the time he was in his first football league, he has played five different positions and has been on both sides of the ball.
“I actually wasn’t always a safety. In little league, I was a defensive end and then I moved to cornerback. But once I got to high school, I was the quarterback and only played safety two games of the season.
“I played quarterback most of my high school career until I got bumped to receiver my junior year. In my senior year, I played safety and was used as a ‘Wildcat’ quarterback.”
Though he made his way through many positions, Kearse enjoyed making plays and ultimately liked playing quarterback the most. He joked that Tiger fans should look out for him on offense if the coaches want to switch things up and confuse the opposition.
“I joke around with coach Streeter and coach Elliott about using me for the ‘Wildcat’ package. I hope they think about it and let me get some reps back there. We could really do some damage with that.”
Kearse ultimately decided that he wanted to play safety over wide receiver, which is another reason he decided to become a Tiger.
“I wanted to play safety, not receiver, and Clemson gave me that choice. I wanted to be the guy hitting people. I didn’t want to be running a slant and have a safety come down and crack my head open.
“The receiver position gets more glory because when someone who doesn’t quite know football, they know the guy who scores the touchdown and catches the passes. But if you’re a true football fan, you’ll know a good safety when you see one.”
Becoming a safety was no easy feat, but Kearse had many positive role models who helped him shape who he was as a player and as a man.
“Guys I look up to, such as Sean Taylor, Eric Berry and Kam Chancellor, motivate me to go out there and do things similar to how they did, because they are great guys and also great players,” stated Kearse. “When people mention the safety position, I hope they will start mentioning my name along with the players I have looked up to.”
Of the safeties he looks up to, Kearse remembers watching Taylor of the Washington Redskins. Sadly, Taylor passed away in 2007, but not before he left a lasting impression on Kearse.
“I liked Sean Taylor. I liked the way he carried himself and the way he did things. It is sad that he had to leave this Earth so soon, but I definitely want to try and keep his name alive with the way I play.”
Closer to home, former Tiger wide receiver Sammy Watkins took a young Kearse under his wing.
“Sammy and I grew up in the same environment, so he has definitely looked out for me. Having him at Clemson made me more comfortable in my transition, because I already knew someone. I didn’t have to get to know an entire team while also staying focused on football.”
Being a Clemson football player has shaped Kearse’s life, both mentally and physically. Growing in these areas is part of what makes the Tiger program so special to Kearse.
“Being around this environment and these coaches, there is no way you can’t grow mentally. The coaches have instilled so many life lessons in me. One of those lessons is being accountable.
“If something is not going right, don’t look to blame others, take responsibility for your actions. Be a grown man about the way you handle your business and be mature about everything.”
“Physically, I came in here weighing 195 pounds, and now I am at 220 and have gained more muscle and filled out more. All around, Clemson has made me a better person and a better football player.”
Kearse’s physical abilities and personality have allowed him to make a lesser-known position a position the Clemson family can no longer ignore. As the season continues, he hopes to keep on bringing attention to his position.
He also wants to take a page out of his idols’ book, inspire young football hopefuls and make them feel that any dream is possible. He, too, used to be a young boy with a dream.
“Hopefully, I am making a name for safeties. I want to keep doing that and be able to give young kids a role model they can look up to. I take that very seriously.”