Jack Conklin’s journey to the NFL is not commonly seen.
The offensive tackle grew up in Plainwell, a small town on the west side of Michigan, just north of Kalamazoo. The town is small indeed, as the 2010 national census reported Plainwell’s population at 3,802 citizens.
A small town star, Conklin did not received any Division I offers at the end of his senior year at Plainwell High School. “There hadn’t been anyone in my school who had gone Division I in twenty or thirty years,” Conklin says. “So we didn’t really have a basis to go off of.”
Conklin, instead, planned to attend the Fork Union Military Academy for a semester. At the all-male preparatory school, he hoped to draw the attention of a prominent college football program and transfer.
This narrative was short lived.
On a visit to Michigan State after his senior year, Conklin impressed the university’s offensive line coach Mark Staten. “I loved his makeup. I loved his mentality,” Staten says as he remembers his first impressions of Conklin. “I thought he and I would click from a player-coach relationship.”
Staten invited Conklin to Michigan State’s spring practice, where Conklin did well enough to earn an invitation from coach Mark Dantonio to walk onto the football team and to fight for scholarship after his first semester.
It seems fitting that Michigan State offered an offensive lineman who had received zero Division I offers the opportunity to walk onto their team. The university has a history of taking unwanted two- and three-star recruits and grooming them into top NFL Draft prospects.
This was Conklin’s new narrative.
Conklin redshirted his first year at Michigan State in 2012. During that time, he learned as much as possible from his veteran teammates. “The older guys when I got to Michigan State; they really helped me a ton. They helped me out after practice, whether it was doing extra drill work or hitting the film … They really brought me along.”
This work earned Conklin a starting role the following season. In 2012, he played 12 of 13 games at either right or left tackle; in 2014, he started every game and allowed just 2.5 sacks; and in 2015, he was the first offensive tackle from Michigan State to be named a first-team All-American since Flozell Adams in 1997.
During these three years, Conklin earned the reputation of being a blue-collar player who thrived off physicality. And playing in the Big Ten, Conklin was able to showcase his skills against some of the best defensive ends in the nation, particularly DeForest Buckner of Oregon and Joey Bosa of Ohio State.
“[Conklin] wanted to show everybody,” says Staten, “when I go up against the top players, they’re going to know that I’m the top player. And he didn’t do it with any malice. He didn’t do it with ill intent. But when he crossed that white line, he played with that ill-intent.”
“He’s not going to gloat, stand over you, and show boat. He’s just going to run down, try to knock somebody else out, and then come back and do it again the next play.”
It was these factors — Conklin’s physicality, blue-collar attitude, and journey from walk-on to All-American — that attracted the Tennessee Titans to Conklin prior to the 2016 NFL Draft. However, acquiring Conklin required trading on the Titans’ end.
The Titans finished the 2015 regular season with the Draft’s No. 1 pick. They traded it to the Los Angeles Rams in return for the No. 15 pick and a slew of later round picks. From there, first-year general manager Jon Robinson says that the Titans “wanted to position ourselves to get [Conklin].”
Conklin was to set a standard of selecting tough, reliable players, according to Robinson. “When I got the job, [Mularkey and I] talked about tough, accountable, team-first guys, and we thought he embodied that to the Nth degree.
On the first day of the draft, the Titans made a deal with the Cleveland Browns to move up from No. 15 to No 8, where Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey successfully selected their Spartan.
Conklin’s journey to the NFL — from Plainwell, to walk-on, to All-American, to No. 8 selection after two trades — thus culminates in Tennessee. Conklin has performed well since coming to Nashville. Byron Bell’s season-ending ankle injury ensures that the rookie will start at right tackle next season alongside Chance Warmack.
Although he primarily played left tackle at Michigan State, Conklin is confident in his ability to play right tackle in the NFL. “It’s really very natural for me. I can go down in a right hand stance and kick with my right foot — that’s the back foot. [Right tackle] is something I can easily do.”
Conklin is not alone in his confidence. Staten looks highly upon his former pupil and foresees a long, successful career in the NFL: “Whoever gets [Conklin] is going to get this person who is extremely hungry, who is going to stay there until the lights are turned off, turn them back on and get back to work … I feel [he] has the highest ceiling of all those [rookies] on the offensive line.”