Jaylon Carlies was running routes and out-muscling south Florida defenders when he got a scholarship offer from Missouri, just before his senior season at West Orange high school. His position coach, Joe Light, wasn’t surprised. Light still calls Carlies one of the best players he’s ever coached.
The only surprise was that the offer came from former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. Carlies was about as good of a receiver as there was in the state at the time. His 241 receiving yards in a single game remains untouched in the West Orange record books.
“I think he’s the most well-rounded wide receiver that I’ve coached,” Light said. “His blocking, physicality is just on point. His route running is very good. Really has a good feel for the game.”
But Walters wanted Carlies to play defensive back at Missouri — safety, in particular. After weighing his options, Carlies knew his versatility would get him through. He ultimately chose the Tigers and the position switch. But he wasn’t on campus long before the team brought up the idea that he might change positions once more.
Missouri had plenty of experience at safety but ran thin at cornerback. Ennis Rakestraw, who signed alongside Carlies as a member of the 2019 class, didn’t hesitate to exhort Carlies’ move to corner.
“I was always telling (Carlies) before corner happened, like, ‘Man, you’re 6-foot-3, you’re about 200 pounds, you run a 4.4, 23 miles per hour. Corner is going to be your strong point,” Rakestraw said. “So, he winds up telling me, ‘Man I’m not going to do that.’ I’m like, ‘You’re going to play corner before you play safety.’ So, he played it, he loved it.”
Carlies quickly found a home on the defensive side of the ball. The same versatility and completeness that his high school coach raved about allowed Carlies to fit in with the secondary and start two games at corner as a true freshman.
And who better to line the secondary than Carlies? He’d spent his upbringing playing receiver: perfecting his craft, mastering routes, learning the tendencies of a good wideout. He knew better than most what opposing receivers wanted to do, and the amount of film he poured over on both sides of the ball allowed him to pick up penchants.
As soon as Carlies got comfortable at his new position, he found himself on the move again. A new defensive coaching staff led by defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was tasked with filling the sizable shoes Tyree Gillespie left behind after he departed for the NFL Draft. Wilks figured Carlies’ size and athleticism would make him a natural fit for the position, placing the thought in the back of Carlies’ head prior to spring ball.
Carlies wrestled with the position change before arriving at the same conclusion as last year: He came to college to play. If safety was the quickest path to doing so, so be it.
“Just having the mindset that wherever coaches want me to play, I have to play it,” Carlies said. “…At this point it’s just, if they need me to play corner, I’ll be a corner. If they need me to play safety, I’ll be there. Just making sure I’m open to doing anything. That’s just always a key factor of playing in college. Shows the coaches that you’re willing to do anything to help the team out.”
Carlies garnered rave reviews with his performance during spring ball. Roughly six months after playing the position for the first time, he has catapulted himself into contention for the starting spot.
Carlies isn’t exactly a lock for the spot, with former four-star recruit Jalani Williams — who appeared in four games at safety last season and started in place of an injured Gillespie late in the season — in contention. Both have acknowledged that there’s plenty of competition in the safety room, but Carlies took the majority of the first-team snaps during Thursday’s scrimmage.
After spending a season at corner that he initially wished he’d spent at safety, Carlies’ wish has been granted. In his eyes, deep safety is actually more similar to receiver than cornerback is.
“Corner, most of the time you’re pretty much sticking to one person,” he said. “But safety, you’re able to see the whole field, so you have to make sure you’re looking both left and right and in the middle. So, you pretty much have to see the whole field with safety.”
Carlies has not only taken to his new position, he’s quickly jelled with Wilks. He said he could instantly see Wilks’ 14 years of NFL experience leak over into practice.
Rakestraw said what he likes most about Wilks is his emphasis on scoring on defense. That mantra should perfectly suit a player who spent years plucking the football out of the air on the other side of the ball, as Carlies did.
Playing his third position in as many seasons, Carlies finally feels at home. Since his high school days, he’s been best when he’s had freedom in the open field. He’s caught himself every now and then realizing that this is where he’s belonged all along.
“Just using my speed around the field is a key factor,” Carlies said. “Being at free safety, roaming the field. That’s what (the coaches) really like about me, just being able to use my speed, run left and right. So, I just feel like the way I’m able to cover ground and help out on certain things really plays a factor and lets me know that I can do this at a higher level.”
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