HS coach Jon Kitna knew Eagles’ draft pick Jalen Reagor was special from Day 1

HS coach Jon Kitna knew Eagles’ draft pick Jalen Reagor was special from Day 1

Long before the Eagles made Jalen Reagor the 21st pick out of TCU in the 2020 draft, former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna already knew how special Reagor was. 

Kitna knew from the first moment he saw him. 

Kitna, the 14-year NFL veteran, moved his family down to Waxahachie, Texas, in February of 2015 after taking the head football coach job at the high school. The very first weekend in town, Jon’s son Jordan, who was going to be a senior quarterback in the fall, got a bunch of players together to run some routes. 

While Kitna played against Jalen’s father Montae in the NFL, he didn’t know much about his son. He learned in a hurry watching him that day. 

“I mean, he’s a sophomore and he’s running routes and I’m like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this for a kid his age,’” Kitna said to NBC Sports Philadelphia on a Zoom call Friday. 

“Immediately, my receiver coach was a former NFL player (Damola Adeniji) and we both looked at each other and said we could take him up to the Cowboys right now and run routes on air right now with all the QBs and receivers and nobody would know he’s a high school sophomore. That’s how polished he was, that’s how good he ran routes, that’s how explosive he was and then catching everything with his hands. We were like, ‘wow, this is different.’”

What made it more impressive was that Reagor wasn’t even really a receiver yet. He played defensive back earlier in his high school career for the Indians. 

But Kitna immediately saw something special in Reagor. So when he didn’t feel like Reagor was running hard enough in their very first practice that spring, he kicked him out of the huddle. 

“When I kicked him out of the huddle, he was mad, he was crying, but it was like a turning point for him,” Kitna said. “I never had an issue with him (again).”

Kitna said he and the receivers coach tried to explain to Reagor that they were being tough on him because they saw him as a future NFL receiver and they wanted him to maximize his potential. 

Five years later, Reagor became a first-round pick.  

The incredible highlight reel 

In his junior and senior seasons at Waxahachie High School, Reagor became a star. He caught 64 passes for 1,108 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior and followed it up with a 50/967/14 campaign as a senior, becoming a four-star recruit and ranked as the 13th-best receiver in the nation. 

He also excelled on the basketball court and on the track. The first time Kitna ever watched Reagor play basketball, the 5-foot-11 guard tried to dunk over somebody from the free throw line. And on the track, Reagor was the lead leg on the 4x100 team and won the state title in long jump, once jumping 26 feet in a district meet!

While Reagor excelled on the court and on the track, it was nothing compared to what he was doing on the football field. 

Reagor’s high school highlight reel is incredible, but Kitna wanted to point out a play he didn’t think would be on it. During Reagor’s junior year, the Indians were in a must-win game with playoff implications; Reagor separated the AC joint in his shoulder in the first half. But with the game on the line on a 4th-and-20, Reagor skied to catch a pass over a defender, landed on his injured shoulder and held on. 

“It was one of the great plays,” Kitna said, “but he had so many of them.” 

Eagles showed a ton of interest

Even after Reagor went off to TCU for three seasons in the Big 12 and after Kitna left Waxahachie High School, the two kept in touch. Reagor would send Kitna practice tape for him to help break down and they would often talk before and after games. 

The Eagles didn’t try to hide their interest in Reagor and Kitna said he got the sense that the Eagles and the Saints were the two teams most interested. At least those were the two teams that reached out to him the most. 

“They did their homework,” Kitna said. “When you’re dealing with a first-round draft pick, you’re going to want to know everything. How’s he work, how’s he catch, how’s he run routes, everything.” 

The Eagles also care about character. Reagor made it a point on Thursday night to point out that he’s a great locker room presence and his coaches back him up on that. Waxahatche athletic director and former coach Greg Reed said aside from Reagor’s talent, he’ll most remember his character and dedication. 

‘No telling what he can do’ 

Kitna watched the first round of the draft with his family on Thursday night and they all erupted when they heard Reagor’s name called. 

Now, he can’t wait to see what Reagor is able to do playing with Carson Wentz in the Eagles’ offense for the next four years. 

“There’s no telling what he can do,” Kitna said. “I know at TCU he was kind of that Z receiver on the right. We moved him all over the place. He can go in motion, he can come in the backfield. 

“When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s dynamically special. When you think of a guy like Tyreek Hill, what he’s done, Antonio Brown, what he’s done. Those kinds of things that those guys do on a football field. He kind of has that same specialness to him.”

Kitna knew from Day 1. 

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Rodney McLeod on Eagles secondary: ‘It’s time to live up to that standard’

Rodney McLeod on Eagles secondary: ‘It’s time to live up to that standard’

“The Eagles’ secondary __________”

You can fill in the blank with whatever word you want, but you get the idea. The Eagles’ secondary has struggled the last two years, and Rodney McLeod has had enough.

Time to do something about it.

Part of it is pass rush, part of it is situational, but over the last two years, the Eagles’ secondary has allowed the 5th-most passing yards in the NFL and the 2nd most passing TDs of 40 yards or more and has the 5th-fewest interceptions.

Enter new secondary coach Marquand Manuel. Enter all-pro cornerback Darius Slay. Enter Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot. Enter Jalen Mills at safety. Enter Will Parks and K’Von Wallace. Good-bye Malcolm Jenkins and presumably a few other familiar faces.

It’s time for this secondary to be a strength of the Eagles. Not a weakness.

As a secondary, I felt that we were a little bit disrespected at times and I think now it’s time to live up to that standard,” McLeod said Thursday. “A standard that’s been set with people that played way before us. The Brian Dawkins of the world. The Troy Vincents. Malcolm (Jenkins). I think when you think of guys who have put on the jersey before us, we owe them that. And so we want to get back to the secondary taking over this defense and winning the game and putting the game on our back, and that’s the standard 'M' (Manuel) is holding us to as well as the players in this room.

The Eagles were 29th in pass defense in 2018 and 19th last year. A lot of that was injuries. But a lot wasn’t.

A lot was just a unit that needed to be overhauled.

The Eagles haven’t had a top-10 pass defense since – believe it or not – 2012, when the 4-12 team was ranked 9th.  Mainly because everybody was always up big against them and just ran the ball.

Their last top-5 pass defense was the 2008 unit, with the late Jim Johnson’s last year as defensive coordinator and current Bills head coach Sean McDermott as secondary coach.

Manuel replaces Corey Undlin, now the Lions’ defensive coordinator.

McLeod said Manuel is already emphasizing to his group that it’s time for the Eagles’ secondary to get back to playing like the Eagles’ secondary of old.

“I think people respect him because he’s played the game, because of his passion and because of the way he coaches this group,” McLeod said. “And because the expectations that he has for us. It’s a very high standard. He’s coached a lot of good secondaries and we want to be another group to be respected in this league and treated as such. He’s going to fit perfectly. We’re going to be good.”

This is the first time since 2013 that Jenkins won’t be lining up at safety for the Eagles, but it’s also the first time they have a Pro Bowl cornerback in his prime on the field since Asante Samuel in 2011.

A lot of newcomers, a lot of change. And McLeod is determined to put out a product on the field that fans can appreciate and opposing players will respect.

It’s been a while.

“It’s a talented group,” he said. “It’s a room full of depth and talented individuals and hungry guys too, willing to compete, and that’s what we have to do. We have to create that culture and bring out the best in all of us in order to be the best.

“We’re all professionals and guys are committed and that’s what you need in order to win. For this season, it’s all about who is able to eliminate distractions and adapt and sacrifice. Both in and out of this building. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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The biggest hurdle as Jalen Mills attempts to change positions 

The biggest hurdle as Jalen Mills attempts to change positions 

The good news is that Jalen Mills knows the Eagles’ defense. And he knows the safety position. 

Now he just has to learn the safety position in the Eagles’ defense. 

The effectiveness with which he does so will have major implications for the Eagles in 2020 as the team tries to have the former cornerback replace their veteran leader Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary. Jim Schwartz thinks Mills has all the tools to play safety in his defense but Mills has to prepare to play it in a most unusual offseason. 

The toughest part of this transition for Mills comes down to one word: Communication. 

That’s why once the virtual spring began this offseason, Mills and returning free safety Rodney McLeod put in extra time on their own. The two had private film sessions to work on chemistry and communication. At Mills’ request, they started with Week 1 and went through the Eagles’ opponents for the 2020 season. 

I really just wanted to hear the way that he communicated,” Mills said. “Because, of course, he’s been on the back end and I was playing on the outside. Now, me hearing how he’s communicating. I told him I didn’t want to switch anything that he did because he’s been successful at that spot. Just more of learning from him and the different type of verbiage that he uses. 

“So I don’t get out there and say something and it may throw him off or slow him down. I just wanted to make sure that he’s still playing fast. At the end of the day, I know the defense, I just want to get the exact verbiage that he may have been using on the back end.

For the last four years, McLeod has played next to Jenkins and the two developed a rapport. While McLeod has played with Mills, it has been in a completely different capacity. They need to be way more in sync this year to make things pop. 

Mills explained that when he played outside corner, if he couldn’t hear a call from the MIKE linebacker, he’d look to the sideline for a hand signal and then be ready for the snap. But as a safety, Mills will have more responsibility. Once he gets a call, it’s part of his new job to relay that information. He’ll have to make sure everybody — corners, linebackers, defensive linemen — knows the call. 

And to do that, it’s all about communication, knowing how to communicate with the rest of the defense. That’s where those extra sessions with McLeod came into play. 

Mills also needs to get rid of some of the rust when it comes to just thinking like a safety again. It’s been a while since he played the position at LSU. 

“Making sure he sees the game the right way as he’s now switching positions and the hardest part for him is not defense, right?” McLeod said. “Like he knows all the schematics but it’s now lining up in a different spot. It’s now him understanding, ‘Where do I need to have my eyes here?’ ‘How are you seeing things?’ 

“I believe the chemistry, man, is going to be a lot easier than people think. And so far, so good. It seems like within the couple of days that we’ve been together as a unit, he’s really taken a step further. I’m very confident that we will be good once Week 1 hits and he’ll be ready to rock and make a lot of plays at his new position.”

While the Eagles are technically already in training camp, their first practice won’t happen until Aug. 12. After that, their first padded practice won’t be until Aug. 17. 

So from the time the Eagles begin padded practices they’ll have less than a month to prepare for their season opener in Washington on Sept. 13. That means less than a month of practices for Mills to make his position switch. 

That’s where that extra time might really pay off. 

If Mills doesn’t work at safety, the Eagles also have free agent Will Parks and rookie K’Von Wallace on the team. But it’s pretty clear that Mills is the guy to get the first crack at the job. 

“Though he is making a position switch,” McLeod said. “I think he will thrive in his position.”

We’ll find out soon enough. 

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