Ryan McCollough/Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Around this time last year, Jaelon Acklin was still working to become a household name in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. What a difference a year can make.
The 24-year-old loves the pressure that comes along with playing a premier offensive position, and when he got his chance to shine, he took it.
“I just tried to do whatever I could to help the team win whenever I was in the game,” Acklin said of his mindset last season. “Coach (Tommy) Condell just kept giving me the ball so I just did my job. It was nice to dip my feet in the water. I hadn’t caught balls like that in two or three years so it was nice.”
In a short amount of time, Acklin has gone from a training camp hopeful to one of the most important pieces in the Ticats’ passing game, and heading into the 2020 season, he’s primed to be one of the breakout stars at the receiver position.
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The Mountain View, Missouri native attended Western Illinois during his college career, spending three seasons playing behind Dallas Cowboys receiver Lance Lenoir.
During his senior year, he finally was the guy for the Leathernecks, and he had a breakout year that earned him consideration as an undrafted free agent in the NFL. He landed with the Baltimore Ravens, but he was cut from the team after having to go under the knife to have hip labrum surgery.
“It was a rough time, especially after I had surgery because I couldn’t work out or do anything,” Acklin said. “I was just stuck at the house. I didn’t have good internet so I couldn’t play video games or anything. It was a pretty trying time. I was living in my mom’s basement just rehabbing on my own and I was supposed to be out for 8-12 months.”
He had to speed up his rehab a tad after he received a call from the Tiger-Cats. They asked him to come to rookie minicamp in 2019, so he worked as hard as he could to get back to full health in time to suit up again. Acklin was also able to visit the team and take in their season finale against the Montreal Alouettes in 2018.
After impressing at minicamp, Acklin made the Ticats’ roster following training camp, being named to the practice roster. He was able to connect with some of the veteran receivers on the roster, but it was Luke Tasker who took him under his wing.
“I would ride out with him to practice whenever I didn’t have my car and he gave me the inside scoop on what to do,” Acklin said. “Just doing things like being early for practices every day and being consistent as a person and as a player. Those were the main things that he taught me.”
Ahead of the second game of the year, Tasker went down with an injury, giving Acklin the chance to step into the lineup. He made the best of the chance, reeling in all five passes thrown his way for 59 yards against Toronto.
He kept the momentum going in Week 4 against Montreal, finishing with eight catches for 120 yards while getting his first career CFL touchdown on a fantastic effort to toe-tap in bounds off a leaping grab.
“Masoli rolled out to the left and I put my hand out and luckily, he saw me,” Acklin said of the grab. “I was just trying to make sure to catch it first and worry about my feet second. Greg Reid almost tipped it, but then it hit me in the chest and I was just trying to get my feet down.”
If you watch a few minutes of Acklin’s tape, you’ll see that highlight-reel catches like that one aren’t anomalies. He’s made it a habit of reeling in balls that might be uncatchable for others. He reeled in one of the best of the 2019 season in Week 11 against the BC Lions.
While running through the middle of the field, Acklin tipped a pass up in the air, and while turning around, managed to get a glimpse of the ball and come down with it. Watching on the TV, I was absolutely dumbfounded as to how he was able to pull it off. Thankfully, Acklin remembers that specific play extremely well.
“On that play, I was supposed to be on the outside. But Speedy had the go route and he said, ‘Let me take it.’ So I originally thought they were going to throw it deep to him,” Acklin said. “But then, they went Cover zero which is man-to-man with no safety over the top. I actually read the play wrong, but I ran a dig route and luckily, Dane saw me before he got smashed.
“It got tipped and I spun around. I don’t know how I caught that, to be honest. I kind of just put my hands out and it stuck in. I knew I caught it from the get-go and then I went to get up and I thought I was already down, but they tackled me. But it was a pretty cool play and people kind of know me for that now.”
The Ticats had a fantastic season by all measures under first-time head coach Orlondo Steinauer. Hamilton finished with a league-best 15-3 record to go along with a spotless 9-0 mark in the friendly confines of Tim Hortons Field.
Despite Jeremiah Masoli going down to a season-ending ACL injury in Week 7, Dane Evans stepped in seamlessly and helped the Tabbies dominate the regular season.
“It was just such an awesome environment. I’ve never been around coaches quite like (Steinauer and Tommy Condell),” Acklin said. “They’re both really good family men who have great values. They aren’t going to be coaches that tell you one thing and then do another. They just have a lot of trust with their players.
“Coach O comes every day with a smile. Coach Condell comes probably every other day with a smile because sometimes he’s in that mood where he yells at me. They’re just really good people, and that’s our entire organization. It’s filled with good people and it just makes it that much more fun to go to work.”
Acklin managed to ball out in his first season up north, finishing the year with 708 yards and three touchdowns on 58 catches. He was named the Ticats’ Most Outstanding Rookie as a result, and while that was a nice feather in his cap, Acklin had his eyes set on bringing a Grey Cup back to Hamilton.
Luckily, he and his teammates got that opportunity. The Ticats were able to make quick work of the Edmonton Eskimos in the Eastern Final, earning their way to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw in Calgary.
For Acklin, the spectacle of the entire week leading up to the game was something that was new to the rookie.
“At every practice, there would be like 100 media members just watching your every move,” Acklin said. “There were also fans waiting outside the hotel every day. It was a really cool experience because I’m from a small school. So I never really got to experience anything like that before.”
There were also the events away from the field, like Media Day and the 2019 Shaw CFL Awards. Acklin reckons that he spent nearly 80 percent of Media Day at the photo booth, rocking a cowboy hat and a WWE championship belt while posing for photos alongside his teammates, including fellow rookie Maleek Irons.
The game itself also served something special for the receiver, as he was set to go head-to-head with college teammate Sean McGuire, Winnipeg’s third-string quarterback last year. The pair roomed together while at Western Illinois and always joked about living in a cabin together while playing in the CFL. Now, they were set to share the same field for the biggest game of the year.
In the end, it was McGuire’s Blue Bombers that came out victorious, breaking a 29-year-long championship drought with a 33-12 victory.
“I think right from the beginning of the game, things just happened where we were never able to get our feet back under us,” Acklin said. “Is it unfortunate that happened? Yeah. Even when you look back when the Patriots went undefeated and lost in the Super Bowl, things happen. Winnipeg played a good game and we didn’t. It’s a learning experience. Next time, we just can’t take it for granted and we’ve just got to go and finish the deal.”
During the extended hiatus away from the field this off-season, Acklin has been working back home at his grandfather’s lumber yard in Missouri. He’s been able to get in some on-field work as well, as his younger brother Jaris, is a quarterback heading into his collegiate career with Evangel University.
After an eye-opening first act in the CFL, Acklin has everyone wondering what’s in store when it comes to 2020. In an offence that features 2019 Most Outstanding Player Brandon Banks as well as DeVier Posey, Acklin has made an impact so large that he can’t be slept on.
With Tasker still yet to sign, there’s a chance that Acklin could step into the position and be a threat in Condell’s scheme. If he’s given a bigger opportunity, expect career-best totals to be set by him in 2020.