ATLANTA — As No. 4 Oklahoma spent the week of Christmas in Atlanta in preparation for its matchup with No. 1 LSU in the College Football Playoff, nearly every Sooner was away from home, and many of them were several hundred miles away.
But for freshman wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, a native of Atlanta’s suburb Ellenwood, the trip to the Peach Bowl represents a homecoming story and an opportunity to show out in front of his friends, family and hometown. To celebrate his return, Haselwood took teammates CeeDee Lamb, Jamal Morris and Theo Wease Jr. — all Texans — to his old barbershop.
And how did that visit go? According to those who went, you had to be there to truly understand.
“You quickly realize that what happens at the barbershop stays at the barbershop,” Lamb said. “Barbershop talk is just barbershop talk. It was very competitive, a lot of trash talk, but we got all our jokes in. It was a great time.”
For Haselwood, the trip was an opportunity to shed light on his upbringing in his hometown to teammates he’s fostered a brother-like relationship with in his 11 months away from Atlanta.
“It was cool because I just wanted to show everybody where I was from,” Haselwood said with a wide smile on Thursday at the Peach Bowl media day, the first time OU freshmen could talk with the media this season. “They took it all in and they liked it, and everybody at the barbershop was showing them major love.”
At just 19, Haselwood is already a star in one of America’s most vibrant and famous cities. At Cedar Grove High School, Haselwood dominated one of the nation’s most competitive football states en route to being Rivals.com’s No. 1 wide receiver in the class of 2019 and the No. 4 overall player.
The people of Atlanta have seen him shine, and those who follow the Sooners are aware of his potential, but Haselwood hasn’t had the opportunity to show out on a national stage quite yet, as the former five-star recruit has only 16 catches and one touchdown on the season. But instead of being upset by the relative lack of opportunities given to him, Haselwood has relished his chance to learn from and grow under more experienced players like Lamb and quarterback Jalen Hurts, runners-up for the Biletnikoff Award and Heisman Trophy, respectively, reflecting his selflessness and team-oriented mindset.
With Oklahoma’s shift to focusing its offense more heavily on the run game as this season has progressed, Haselwood's opportunity to finally unleash himself to a national audience may not come on Saturday in his hometown. But if it does, perhaps no true freshman is better equipped to seize that opportunity than him.
“I’m very excited to see the receiver he’s going to turn into,” Lamb said. “He had these great flashes his freshman year with the ball in his hands and his route running in practice. He’s grown a lot from the beginning of the season till now.
“Honestly, when it’s all said and done, he’s going to have better numbers than me.”
Just over a year before taking on LSU, Haselwood laced up his cleats in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the location of Saturday’s Peach Bowl, for the Georgia Class AAA state title game against Peach County High School.
With 10 seconds remaining, Cedar Grove faced a 13-7 deficit. Quarterback Kendall Boney took the snap and tossed the ball across the middle to Haselwood, who reeled in the pass just as he crossed the goal line, sealing a victory for the Saints.
It was Haselwood's only catch of the game, but it came when his team needed him most.
“It’s kind of the perfect example of him not getting the ball throughout the game and never complaining,” said Jimmy Smith, Cedar Grove’s head coach at the time. “As soon as I called that play, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to make that play. I told our quarterback to just give him a chance, and I looked at Jadon and he winked his eye at me, and I knew we were going to win that game.”
Haselwood's state title heroics are now well known, as a video of the play has over 13,500 views on YouTube, but his penchant for clutch plays extends to his time at Cedar Grove Middle School.
In a strangely similar circumstance, Haselwood's middle school team was in the county’s championship against Tucker Middle School when he caught a game-winning touchdown in the back of the end zone.
“It’s kind of interesting because his last year of middle school they played in the championship, and it was double overtime with no time on the clock, and he caught it to win the middle school championship,” said Haselwood’s father, Jeremy. “We saw it play out again in high school with the same situation with his touchdown catch, and we hope that’s foreshadowing Jadon making a championship touchdown for Oklahoma.”
For his part, Haselwood is more focused on leaving Atlanta with a victory Saturday.
“It happens at every level for some reason. I don’t know why, though,” Haselwood said with a laugh. “I’m hoping I can do it again. If it happens, that’s great. And if we don’t but we still win, that’s even better.”
Seventy days before helping Cedar Grove win the state title, Haselwood decommitted from Georgia, which he had been committed to for over a year. As Haselwood was one of the nation’s top recruits, many schools were pursuing him, but Oklahoma had two critical advantages: an elite history with wide receivers and a family connection.
The Sooners have fielded wide receivers such as Sterling Shepard, Dede Westbrook and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown — all currently playing in the NFL — and Lamb, who is on track to be a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
That prestige, along with head coach Lincoln Riley’s high-powered offense, is enough for nearly any recruit to consider the Sooners. But further boosting OU’s chances at landing Haselwood was the fact that Jeremy had attended OU from 1995 to 1998, and he still had multiple relatives living in the state.
“With the profile that he had, you knew everyone was going to be in that race for him, so the challenges in recruiting him were along the same lines as recruiting any guy nationally,” said Oklahoma’s outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons. “But if you look at this program’s history, you know we’ve had success doing that, and he saw that. He grew up having knowledge of the history of the OU football program, and that aided us a lot.”
After announcing his commitment to Oklahoma at the All-American Bowl on Jan. 5, Haselwood packed his bags and moved over 800 miles to Norman as an early enrollee. While there were struggles, the move ultimately helped him mature and prepare himself for the football season.
“It was kind of difficult at first because it was the first time being on his own, which is like what it is for any normal kid going to college,” said Darrin Hood, one of Haselwood's best friends from high school. “But to get away from the city, it ended up being pretty good for him. It made him independent, and it also made him closer with his teammates because they were around each other all the time.”
Even with the talent Haselwood possesses, there’s never a guarantee that any true freshman can step in and immediately contribute to an elite offense like Oklahoma’s. But those close to him say he’s maximized his first year in Norman by learning from his teammates who were once in his shoes.
“With Jalen only being here for one year and CeeDee probably going to the league, they’ve taken Jadon under their wings this year,” Hood said. “And he’s just soaking it all in like a sponge, and he’s going to be able to help the younger guys next year. The playing time is what you’d expect from a freshman, so getting any type of experience as a freshman will help him out next year.”
Atlanta has over 300,000 more residents than Norman, and while it’s known for its lively nightlife and flourishing music scene, Norman is known mostly for the Sooners’ football program. So while Haselwood misses the fast-paced nature of living in a city like Atlanta, he said the quiet, football-centric Norman helps him hone his craft.
“It’s a major difference living in Norman than Atlanta,” Haselwood said. “I’ve always been a city guy, and I haven’t ever really lived in a college town. There’s definitely a lot more to do down here. There’s more places to eat and more fun stuff. But when I’m in Norman, I don’t really do anything but stay in the dorm and play the game.”
When Haselwood stormed out of the southeast tunnel of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium onto Owen Field on Sept. 1 for the first time as a Sooner, Jeremy beamed with pride from the stands.
Naturally, seeing his son take the field at one of the most prestigious programs would make him proud, but particularly as a former OU student, the moment had a special place in his heart.
“It’s a surreal feeling. I grew up as a young kid playing at recess, pretending to be an Oklahoma Sooner when I was young,” Jeremy said. “To be such a big fan and to have it be such a big part of our family growing up, then to see Jadon out there in the uniform, it’s like a dream.”
Haselwood's first college catch came with 8:30 remaining in the third quarter, when he caught a pass from Hurts 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, broke two tackles and outran Houston defenders to the 4-yard line for a 42-yard gain.
He went on to score his first touchdown one week later in a 70-14 rout of South Dakota, but outside of a six-reception performance against Texas Tech on Sept. 28, Haselwood hasn’t caught more than three passes in any game this year, and he hasn’t made a catch in his last three games.
The fleeting moments of success have given Sooner Nation a taste of what may be to come with Haselwood, but his maturity and willingness to grow even when standing on the sideline is nothing new, as he was an unselfish player even when he was one of the nation’s top recruits.
But his time on the sideline will likely come to an end soon. With Lamb likely to declare for the NFL Draft shortly after the Sooners’ season ends, there will be a massive void to be filled by a new star wide receiver, and Haselwood has all the potential to be the next man up.
“I mean, walking through the door physically, he was along the same lines as those other guys,” Simmons said. “With his God-given ability, his size and his skillset, I would expect his career to be no different when it’s all said and done to those guys. Now he’s still going to have a large part to do with that in the offseason, with how hard he works, because those kids worked their butts off, and I know he will, too.”
Haselwood's coaches seem to have little doubt that he’ll reach his potential — it’s just a matter of when. Whether or not his time in the limelight comes against the Tigers on Saturday, his laser focus on winning football games will remain.
“Jadon’s always been very mature as a teammate,” said Smith, who is now an assistant coach at Georgia State, where the Sooners are practicing this week before the Peach Bowl. “He was the No. 1 receiver in the nation his senior year, and there were games where he didn’t have any catches. But he never complained at all. I never heard one complaint. He was a guy — and this sounds cliche — but winning really is the most important thing for him.”