Auburn Jack Linebacker Jalen McLeod (35)_20230930_FB_vsUGA_AP_0038Auburn Jack Linebacker Jalen McLeod (35)_20230930_FB_vsUGA_AP_0038
03385434/Auburn Tigers

On The Plains with Jalen McLeod: 'Have your own grind'

by George Nunnelley

AUBURN, Ala. – From Washington, D.C., to the Plains of Auburn, Alabama, Jalen McLeod has always been driven by an underdog mentality. 

Somewhat overlooked because of his size, the now-6-foot-1 McLeod’s first sport was basketball. However, his focus shifted toward football in high school as he got bigger and developed more aggression. He knew he had to play with a certain edge and have a high motor to stand out from the others. 

“That’s the reason I go so hard – because I was always undersized and underrated,” McLeod said of his playing style. “Once I realized that if I chase the ball down from 20 yards, that’s going to pop up on film, I haven’t stopped since. I learned that once I take the off-the-field stuff seriously, the on-the-field stuff will come easily.”

Still flying under the radar coming out of high school, McLeod’s first stop on his college football journey took him to Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina. The Mountaineers gave McLeod his first scholarship offer after he stood out at a practice a couple of coaches attended to see two of his Friendship Collegiate Academy teammates. The offers started to add up as his senior season progressed, but McLeod stayed loyal to Appalachian State because they gave him his first chance. 

His three-year stint with the Mountaineers not only resulted in 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks in 30 career games played, but also better prepared him to take the next step in his football career. 

“The first thing I learned was discipline,” McLeod said of his time at Appalachian State. “In high school, you’re not really disciplined in your daily routine. Going to App State helped me stay disciplined in my nutrition, with my weight training and staying on top of my grades. You’re doing it all on your own at 18. App State taught me discipline because the coaches instilled in us that nobody was bigger than the team.”

Despite his positive experience and development at Appalachian State, McLeod knew he had to bet on himself and his abilities if he wanted the best chance to achieve his ultimate goal of playing in the National Football League. 

“I had to leave. I had to elevate my game,” McLeod said. “I knew I could play at the next level even though I was undersized. I knew I had the skill set, the mindset, the talent to play in the SEC. I just took that leap of faith.”

20231125_FB_vs_Alabama_McLeod35_AP_05699AUBURN, AL - November 25, 2023 - Auburn Jack Linebacker Jalen McLeod (#35) before the Iron Bowl game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL. Photo by Austin Perryman

In taking that leap, McLeod found his new home in Auburn thanks to the appeal of multiple factors, including the electric atmosphere of Jordan-Hare Stadium, the defensive scheme of the Tigers and the overall culture being built by head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff. 

“Football here is like a culture; it’s different,” McLeod said. “If you want to go to the next level, you’re going to come to Auburn or the SEC. What stood out to me the most was the culture.”

Coming off a 2023 season in which he played in all 13 Auburn games and ranked second on the Tigers in tackles (50), tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (5.5), McLeod enters his final season of college football with his focus on one thing. 

“That adds a little more fuel to my fire,” said the sociology major, scheduled to graduate in December. “This is my last year, so I’m going all in. Even more than last year or the year before, I’m going all in. I’m breathing football right now.”

This is my last year, so I’m going all in. Even more than last year or the year before, I’m going all in. I’m breathing football right now.


Jalen McLeod


Taking a look in the rearview mirror before wrapping up another chapter of his football journey, McLeod knows his younger self would be proud of what he has achieved. 

“When I was little, I never thought I’d be playing at Auburn or in the SEC. He’d be proud of me, for sure,” he said.

McLeod knows he didn’t get to where he is today without putting in countless hours of hard work and overcoming many obstacles along the way. However, he also knows he didn’t get here on his own. Much like the support of the Auburn Family, which McLeod said means ‘we’re all one,’ Jalen had his own support system growing up.

“My brother Aubrey and my mother were my No. 1 fans,” McLeod said. “My brother made sure I had my head on straight. Where we come from, everyone did the same thing. He wanted me to be different. I stayed on a different path than everyone else. He was my biggest mentor.

“I just realized how much they went through and how hard they had to work,” he added of his parents. “The son always has a huge relationship with his mom because that’s his first love. Once I realized what she had to go through so I could get to college and not live the same life she had to live when she was growing up. I know what it took for her to get me here.”

Looking back on his path, McLeod’s advice to a young, aspiring football player would be to find a way to set yourself apart from everyone else and to not be scared to go in a different direction. 

“Don’t go where everyone else is going. Have your own mind. Have your own grind,” McLeod added.

McLeod’s drive and determination are attributes that have helped him achieve his success to this point in his career, and others are certainly starting to take notice as he was recently one of seven Auburn players named to one of Phil Steele’s preseason all-SEC teams. 

However, individual accolades aren’t what McLeod and his fellow leaders on the 2024 Tigers are pursuing. They’re trying to instill a certain mindset among their teammates in order to achieve their ultimate goal of making the 12-team College Football Playoff. 

“Winning every day,” he said of the team’s mentality. “You have to win every day. You have to take every day one step at time. You can’t look too much ahead. You have to look at today. That’s what we’re trying to instill in everybody. We just have to have that mindset and discipline to take it one game at a time.”

Now, with fewer than 70 days until Kickoff on The Plains on August 31, the senior edge isn’t the only one ready to leave it all on the field. He feels a synergy within the program that he, his teammates and the coaching staff hope translates to success this fall.  

“We’re all hungry and coming together as a team,” McLeod said. “We know what we have to accomplish. We’re going to go in all for our coaches. We believe in them and they believe in us. We’re all in.”

20240406_FB_ADay_McLeod35_AP_3495AUBURN, AL - April 06, 2024 - Auburn Buck Linebacker Jalen McLeod (#35) during the A-Day Spring Game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL. Photo by Austin Perryman