Red Mountain receiver Ja’Kobi Lane leaps from benchwarmer to ‘unguardable’

USC commit Ja’Kobi Lane is making a name for himself as a wide receiver at Red Mountain High School, where he has emerged as the Arizona’s top-ranked player at his position in the class of 2023. (Marlee Zanna Thompson/Cronkite News)

MESA – Type “Ja’Kobi Lane” into an online search engine, and it will spit out dozens of spectacular video highlights featuring the long and lanky wide receiver from Mesa’s Red Mountain High School.

It also will reveal that the 6-foot-5, 180-pound senior is the top-ranked wide receiver in the state of Arizona’s 2023 recruiting class, according to 247Sports latest rankings, and that the four-star-rated recruit committed to play at USC just over a month ago.

It’s impressive stuff, especially for a guy who was warming the bench at Red Mountain just a couple of years ago.

If limited playing time was humbling for Lane when he was a sophomore, it isn’t any longer. Now, he describes himself as “unguardable” and takes inspiration from NFL receivers such as Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr.

“I try to do things people wouldn’t think I could do,” Lane said. “I try to bend in ways people don’t think I can. So I think when it comes to me as a player, I think I’m kind of unique. And you can’t really compare to a lot of people besides some of the great NFL receivers.”

Lane also takes more pride than many receivers in another aspect of his game, declaring that he is “the best downfield blocker in the class of 2023,” and pointing out that he has a lot of “pancakes on film.”

A “pancake” is typically something offensive linemen brag about – a block that leaves an opposing defensive player flat – as a pancake – on his back.

While Lane might come across as brash and cocky, and he does not lack confidence in his ability, Red Mountain football coach Kyle Enders describes him as “unselfish,” a “great teammate” and a player who “does whatever’s best to help his team win.”

During Lane’s sophomore year at Red Mountain, he didn’t play much for the varsity team, despite some obvious physical gifts. He only caught three passes and scored one touchdown that season.

He knew he needed another avenue to showcase his talent, and with the help of Oregon commit Cole Martin, Lane found it in the world of 7-on-7 football.

“Cole has been a friend of mine since grade school,” Lane said. “I wanted to play (7-on-7), and he asked if I wanted to come to a tryout.”

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While 7-on-7 football is popular within the high school football landscape, it’s a simple concept.

A 7-on-7 football team is made up of a quarterback, a snapper and various combinations of wide receivers and running backs on offense. On the other side of the ball, a mix of linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties try to defend.

Players do not wear pads because there is no tackling, and competition year around is possible because – without full contact – injuries are less of a concern. Lane said 7-on-7 is “designed for receivers to work on their route running,” and “defenders to work on their defensive coverage.”

It produces a wide-open game that accentuates the abilities of skill players on both sides. It also attracts the eyeballs of a lot of college recruiters. And 7-on-7 competition gives players another platform to show off their personalities as well as their abilities, especially in the age of social media where a highlight can go viral instantly.

One video of Lane playing in 7-on-7 competition accumulated a whopping 8.1 million views on YouTube as part of a collection of clips from one night on the 7-on-7 circuit.

Lane initially attended a 7-on-7 tryout with another friend, Kyler Casper, who is a freshman wide receiver at Oregon. They both made an immediate impression on Toby Bourguet, who coaches the Tucson Turf Elite Football Program.

“I met Ja’kobi at this tryout, and I was immediately in awe of what I was watching on the field,” Bourguet said. “Some receivers were tall, some were fast, some could really catch the ball. But to see somebody that had all of those things in one embodiment, it was amazing.”

Bourguet recalled a moment during a 7-on-7 tournament in New Orleans that captured not only Lane’s physical abilities, but his high-energy approach to the game and the joy he takes in the success of his teammates.

“There was one play where Kyler (Casper) scored a touchdown, and he and Ja’kobi just looked at one another and did backflips in unison,” Bourguet said. “It’s rare on an All-Star team to get two kids like that, that have that energy, and they really want the other one to succeed.

“It really resonated with me because of his energy and his uplifting spirit.”

Despite his lack of playing time as a sophomore at Red Mountain, Lane received his first scholarship offer from Arizona State in February of 2021, according to 247Sports. More offers would follow from such college football powers as Auburn, Texas A&M, Oregon and USC. It helped that Lane was mentored through the process by former ASU defensive back Chase Lucas.

Red Mountain High receiver Ja’Kobi Lane says he models his game after NFL greats Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr. (<a href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Marlee Zanna Thompson</a>/Cronkite News)

Red Mountain High receiver Ja’Kobi Lane says he models his game after NFL greats Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr. (Marlee Zanna Thompson/Cronkite News)

“He was a big role model for me,” Lane said. “Watching him and how he went through the journey and the recruitment process and kind of what it was like for him, I think that was a big thing for me.”

Recruiting experts on 247Sports predicted Lane would commit to Oregon. Lane had publicly expressed his love for the Ducks and he had friends who had committed to Oregon or were already on the Eugene campus.

Instead, he surprised everybody by committing to the Trojans in August.

“It was hard not to deny that Oregon was a powerhouse back then, and I think that won me over when I was little,” Lane said. “But I think USC gave me things that I cannot compare to other schools, and I felt like it was going to be the best opportunity for me as a young man and growing in a culture (where) I think I would thrive.”

Lane joins an impressive USC class that includes Zachariah Branch, who is the No. 1-rated receiver in the country in the 2023 class, and quarterback Malachi Nelson, who is ranked behind only Texas commit Arch Manning at his position, according to 247Sports. Both are rated among the top five 2023 players in the nation at any position.

Lane already knows Nelson, thanks to the 7-on-7 circuit.

“We’ve been in contact for a long time and have seen each other at tournaments,” Lane said. “I think the summers on the 7-on-7 circuits are a great way to meet new people and, because of that, we’re good friends.”

Meanwhile, Lane is concentrating on Red Mountain’s season. His biggest goal is “to bring home a state championship.”

The Mountain Lions are off to a 2-1 start, and after catching 76 passes for 990 yards as a junior, Lane has 12 catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns through three games as a senior, according to MaxPreps. He has also thrown a 60-yard touchdown pass.

But putting up big numbers isn’t Lane’s only goal this season. He wants to make sure he appreciates the final season of his high school career.

“I just want to go have fun, and really soak in this last year with my guys,” Lane said. “I’m trying to take every moment for what it is, and not trying to be a big superstar and just really realizing that you only get these types of moments once. So you really have to take it all in.”

Enders had nothing but good things to say about Lane after watching as he “improved drastically on and off the field,” and he’s excited to watch his star at USC in the near future.

Confidence, talent and play-making ability have made Lane a force on the field that, combined with a cheerful spirit off the field, as Bourguet described it, might soon make searching “Ja’Kobi Lane” on Google totally unnecessary.

“He’s not an 18-year-old kid that’s trying to be 25. He’s actually an 18-year-old kid trying to enjoy everyday life,” Bourguet said. “Like he’s just kind of a happy spirit.”

Vincent Deangelis VIN-sint dee-ANN-jeh-lis
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Vincent Deangelis expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Deangelis reports for The State Press.

Marlee Zanna Thompson mar-lee zann-uh
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Marlee Zanna Thompson expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Thompson has interned in public relations with the Arizona Coyotes and earned a Pulliam Fellowship in sports news with The Arizona Republic.