Despite the splashy signings the Denver Broncos made this offseason, their best acquisition is proving to be Jaleel McLaughlin, an undrafted running back. Now, six weeks into the season, it’s astonishing that all 32 teams let McLaughlin, who’s currently averaging 6.6 yards per carry, go unselected. His journey to the NFL is a testament to his ability to maximize every opportunity that has been shaped by a life marked by adversity.

From homelessness to star

Born in Marshville, North Carolina, McLaughlin’s early years were marred by family struggles, homelessness, and poverty. In 7th grade, his mother, Tonya McLaughlin, was laid off from her factory job, forcing them to bounce around living in motels and relatives’ houses. McLaughlin’s grandmother passed away from a heart attack while his family was living with her. The family was then forced to live outside of a McDonald’s in their Ford Focus for a period of time.

Throughout these struggles, sports remained a constant in the lives of the McLaughlin family. As Tonya put it, “Being a single mom, I didn’t know what else to do with boys but to keep them busy with sports.” 

She eventually moved to Arkansas for work, temporarily separating from her sons. However, she returned two years later when McLaughlin entered high school, reuniting the family. 

At Forest Hills High School, McLaughlin excelled as a three-sport athlete, competing in track, football, and basketball. His basketball team clinched a state championship, and he also secured two state titles in track and field.

Though he averaged 8.4 YPC as a senior, McLaughlin received few college football scholarship offers because of his 5’7″ stature. He ultimately accepted an offer from Notre Dame College, a Division II school in Euclid, Ohio. In his collegiate debut, he broke a then-school record rushing for 302 yards on 22 carries. McLaughlin rebroke that record a few weeks later with a 340-yard performance. His freshman year culminated with leading the NCAA in rushing yards (2,421) and touchdowns (19).

In his sophomore season, McLaughlin continued his dominance with 2,316 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns.  He amassed a total of 4,737 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns in his first two years. He became the first player in any NCAA level to achieve over 2,000 rushing yards in both freshman and sophomore seasons. In 2020, he transferred to Youngstown State, a Division I school.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted McLaughlin’s first season at Youngstown State, which took place in the spring of 2021. He still managed to rush for 691 yards and five touchdowns over seven games. In the fall of 2021, he recorded 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns. An additional 2022 season due to the pandemic saw McLaughlin add 1,588 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He left Youngstown State as college football’s all-time leading rusher with 8,166 yards.

Undrafted and undeterred

Though he performed at record-breaking levels in college, McLaughlin went undrafted in the 2023 NFL Draft. However, he opted to sign with the Denver Broncos, citing their interview as his favorite. Against the odds, a stellar preseason performance earned him a spot on the final 53-man roster.

McLaughlin scored his first NFL touchdown in Week 2 with a five-yard rush. His role expanded in Week 4, where he rushed for 72 yards with an impressive 10.3 yards per carry. In Week 5, Javonte Williams sat out due to injury, providing McLaughlin with an increased role. Despite Williams’ return the following week, McLaughlin remained a vital part of the offense. Over the last three weeks, he has rushed for 180 yards, averaging 7.8 YPC, and added eight receptions for 65 yards and two touchdowns. 

For Broncos fans, the team’s underutilization of their running game has been puzzling. Against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, Denver’s game was the only efficient part of the offense, yet Williams and McLaughlin only combined for 17 rushing attempts. Looking ahead to Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers, who currently rank 28th in defending the run, there’s every reason to expect yet another standout performance from McLaughlin. While his ultimate potential remains to be seen, there’s certainly cause for excitement surrounding McLaughlin’s future prospects.