Molding JC Latham, by former IMG head coach Kevin Wright

In many ways, JC Latham’s path to being the Tennessee Titans’ No. 7 overall selection in the 2024 NFL Draft started at IMG Academy, the premier preparatory boarding school and sports training destination in the country. Latham left his family behind in Wisconsin, where he had been attending Catholic Memorial in Waukesha, not far from his listed hometown of Oak Creek.

Latham left his familiar and comfortable surroundings behind to be challenged at IMG Academy, a prep school that can now claim it’s had a first-round pick in five consecutive drafts. They had two this year in actuality, with Latham being joined by J.J. McCarthy just three selections later at No. 10.

Former IMG head coach Kevin Wright was the one who welcomed Latham to the program. As I wanted to know more about Latham’s path from a little-known 270 pound defensive end recruit to a unanimous five-star 340 pound offensive tackle, there was no better person to tell that story than Wright himself. So I tracked coach Wright down for an hour-long, extensive conversation. Coach Wright and I discussed initial impressions, overseeing Latham’s position change to offensive tackle, playing left tackle for the Titans, and so much more.

You don’t want to miss this one, part one in an ongoing JC Latham series I’ve titled “Molding JC Latham.” More surprises are on the way…

JM: JC Latham arrived at IMG Academy as a defensive end following his freshman season at Catholic Memorial. He was still playing defense as of his junior season at IMG. What were your initial thoughts and impressions following his arrival at IMG?

Kevin Wright: Of course I said this guy is going to grow into a dominant offensive tackle (laughs). I say that half kiddingly. He was a big, long, athletic kid. That was the first impression. He was still growing into his body. He has a great personality. He’s such a fun kid to be around. That stuck out immediately. He had no idea what his potential was. He was just a kid that loved playing football.

Making the decision to come from Wisconsin down to Bradenton, Florida at that age, it was a family decision. It sounds good but all of a sudden you get here, mom and dad leave and it’s sink or swim. You’re a young kid on your own.

I thought he did a great job. He embraced everything that came with it. That says a lot about his family, and how Catholic Memorial prepared him as well. He embraced the early morning workouts. We had a rigorous academic schedule. The practices, the meetings, he was present for it all. He was never withdrawn. He did a great job fitting in with everyone else.

The daily routine at IMG is no different from a college program. The only difference is you don’t have any of the fun (laughs). We had those kids in their room at 10:15 p.m. every single night.

He had no idea what his potential was. He was just a kid that loved playing football.

My first impression was that he was a big, long, lanky kid. He hadn’t yet grown into his body. We knew the potential was through the roof. He always wore a smile on his face. He’s such a happy kid. It makes him a pleasure to be around.

JC Latham may have set the IMG record for the quickest visit from a college head coach following a player’s arrival at IMG (laughs). I don’t think JC was there four or five days before Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst came to check on him (laughs).

Everybody knew he had the potential to be special, even at that age. Having that potential, and putting the work in to bring it all together, those are two different things. He put the work in.

JM: Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst visited IMG just days after JC Latham’s arrival? (laughs).

Kevin Wright: Coach Chryst may have set the record for that (laughs). I’m half kidding, but they knew all about JC Latham already as an in-state kid from Wisconsin. They came all the way down to Bradenton, Florida. I think that was the fastest I ever had a coach visit IMG following the arrival of a new kid at our program.

Wisconsin knew exactly who he was. They were familiar with his potential even at that age. Coach Chryst stayed on top of it. Once you take that step to attend IMG, you’re not a hidden secret in Wisconsin anymore. You’re on a national stage now. Everybody is going to come across the country to come see you. When JC Latham came down to us, it’s not like he was a household name in the recruiting world. He was still a kid, but Wisconsin obviously knew who he was. They understood the importance of maintaining that relationship with him. 

Maybe not everybody recruits the state of Wisconsin, but everybody recruits Florida. Not a lot of people knew much about JC at that time, but coach Chryst knew a whole lot about him, which makes sense, because they’re a good program [Wisconsin]. You’d expect that.

JM: That’s an awesome story. What went into the decision to move him to offensive tackle? Walk me through your thought process. Was he immediately receptive to the idea?

Kevin Wright: That’s a great question. We did it with a few kids. There was a kid named Tyler Booker that went to Alabama as well.

The reality is that when you get a kid that young with his sort of growth potential, and those quick feet, there’s only so many kids that legitimately have the potential to play offensive tackle in the NFL. From a body type standpoint, from a footwork standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint, there are so few of those kids throughout the country.

We knew he was going to keep growing. We saw the length and the footwork. At a certain point, we knew he’d outgrow the defensive side of the football. We talked about it. It started by working both sides of the football. Let’s run some trial reps.

There are only so many kids that legitimately have the potential to play offensive tackle in the NFL. There are so few of those kids throughout the country.

Credit him. It tells you what type of kid he was. He was immediately receptive. It wasn’t like he said, “No, I’m a defensive player.” Some kids, you’d be surprised, they already have those preconceived notions in their head. That wasn’t JC Latham.

Was he all in on it? I wouldn’t say he was 100% all in from the get-go (laughs). But he was receptive enough and coachable enough. He was going to listen when we gave him good advice.

This could be something that really sets you apart from other people down the line. That’s what we told him. You’re talking to a 17 year old kid and you’re talking about the draft five or six years from now. When they’re getting ready to call names, your opportunity to be a first-round pick as an offensive tackle is through the roof. It’s probably a lot greater than it would be if you stayed at defensive end, or as a 3-technique. He could have been an inside guy instead.

We had a few kids like that. I mentioned Tyler Booker earlier. Tyler was the same thing, he and JC Latham played both ways for a little while. JC progressed into it. The more he played offensive tackle, the more college coaches that came down here to watch him practice, the feedback he was getting reinforced the conversations I had with him about playing offensive tackle.

The more he got into playing offensive tackle, the more he drew on what we initially talked about. It wasn’t like it was just my idea. He was starting to understand it because he was hearing it from other people as well.

This position change is going to set you apart. It’s going to give you a chance to be truly special.

JM: That’s outstanding. He played left tackle for you. He made the switch to right tackle at Alabama, and the Titans now plan to move him back to the left side. They have a great offensive line coach in Bill Callahan. First and foremost, what are your thoughts on his ability to play on the left? Some Titans fans were a little surprised about the immediate decision to move him to the left after he didn’t play there at Alabama.

Kevin Wright: Alabama is no different from the Tennessee Titans from a standpoint that they’re going to look at their own personnel first and foremost. You’re going to put players in positions that help you win games. That’s always the goal.

It’s apples and oranges to me. Does it take a kid that has intelligence and the right body type to put one hand down versus the other? Yes it does, but JC Latham has done it before. The NFL, and even a program like Alabama, did all of their homework beforehand.

This position change is going to set you apart. It’s going to give you a chance to be truly special.

The Titans knew what their needs were. When they evaluated Latham’s chances of playing left tackle, I assure you they evaluated the tape, the NFL Combine, pro day, and all-star game circuit. That’s the way it works across the board.

They knew he was capable of doing what they need him to do. To answer your question, no, it doesn’t surprise me that they’re going to play him on the left. At that level, and Alabama is the same way, the more interchangeable you are, the more value you bring to the team. You need to move the pieces around the chessboard as you see fit. You’re limited at that level when it comes to injuries.

What they saw in JC Latham was hey, we’re going to take this kid and make him our franchise left tackle. That’s who he is. From Alabama’s standpoint, I’d have to go back and look at what they had when he arrived.

JM: Evan Neal was the left tackle when Latham arrived in 2021.

Kevin Wright: There you go (laughs). Another kid I had at IMG for three years. I think you can see the vision. That’s a win-win situation. There’s no losing there (laughs). I had both of them. You’re talking about two very, very special young men.

If Evan Neal was already playing left tackle, they probably weren’t going to make that move. It’s based on personnel. It had nothing to do with what JC Latham could or couldn’t do. 

I’m not surprised one bit that the Titans are going to play him at left tackle. He has what it takes from a footwork and length standpoint to be a guy you can depend on at left tackle.

The left tackle is your blindside protector. They pay that position a lot of money for a reason. The Titans did their due diligence throughout this process. Like you already mentioned, they have one hell of an offensive line coach in Bill Callahan. He knows what he’s doing.

To summarize, no, I’m not surprised he’s playing left tackle again.

JM: You coached some outstanding players throughout your time at IMG. Recent alums include quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who went three picks after Latham at No. 10 overall, making it two top 10 picks from IMG in the 2024 NFL Draft. Comparing Latham to all the ones you’ve seen, and I know that’s a lot to ask, but how does he stack up in terms of readiness?

Kevin Wright: That’s a tough question. I’ll say this. Here’s another IMG connection for you. The head of performance, which we used to call the strength coach, David Ballou came with me to IMG as our strength coach. He later went to Alabama, where he coached Latham again. He’s been Latham’s coach at Alabama for the past few years after having him at IMG.

As far as physically ready goes, he’s right up there with anyone I’ve ever had. The reality is when you start asking that question, you can be physically ready, but you still may get exposed a little bit more at left tackle because of how difficult of a position that is to play.

You don’t get drafted at No. 7 if they don’t think you’re ready. That right there tells me how the Titans feel about him. He’s going to come in and play. I haven’t been around him every day since he left IMG for Alabama, so I haven’t done the same deep dive the Titans have, but anytime you pick somebody that high, you feel like they’re going to contribute at a high level right away.

They have one hell of an offensive line coach in Bill Callahan. He knows what he’s doing.

The level you’re ready to contribute at, it varies because left tackle is a tough spot. You talk about the quarterback, other than that, left tackle is the second-most difficult position to play on offense. That’s tough to start off with based on the defensive ends you’re going to see on the other side.

If he continues to grow the way he has, he’s going to be successful. The Titans vetted him enough and watched his progress. They feel he’s taken the steps necessary to be the type of player they need at left tackle.

JM: Latham has rare size and measurements for the position, from a height, weight, arm length, wingspan, and hand size perspective. Which of his traits stood out to you back then?

Kevin Wright: When he first showed up at IMG, you saw that he was a big, long, rangy kid. When he first started growing into his body, I don’t remember exactly where he was at that point, but I’d guess he was around 270 pounds. You’re just thinking, wow, when he grows into his body, he’s going to be special. He may not have even been 16 years old when we got him at IMG.

You’re analyzing the growth potential. You’re looking at the physical attributes and saying wow. At that point, you either have a guy that wants to be coached and wants to work hard, or not so much. He had that work ethic from the very beginning. He wanted to get better.

He wanted to be coached. He came to IMG because he wanted to be challenged every single day. That’s the advantage of coming to IMG. You’re going to play and practice against some similar guys.

The other thing that always stuck out to me was his personality. He has a big personality. Those were my first impressions. We talked about the position change. His openness and coachability to those ideas stuck out to me. You can’t teach those things. They come from your family, who you’re surrounded by, your younger coaches, and who you are as a person.

He’s so personable. You want to be his teammate. You want him on your side. That’s one of the reasons why he’s had so much success. You think about his time going from Catholic Memorial to IMG, and then to Alabama, the kid is a winner. He’s used to winning and competing at a high level. That’s going to ease his transition. The Titans are getting a good player and a great teammate. That’s what you want. You want great players that are good people. He’s a guy you’d love to hang around with in everyday life.

When you leave your family back in Wisconsin at that age, he was 15 or 16, when you make that decision, you’re leaving your family for a foreign land. It’s like going to college three years early.

There are guys that thrive in that environment, and guys who don’t. The ones that succeed are ready for it. They want it. The ones that fail, they can’t handle it. They’re not ready for it at that point. That’s why JC Latham has gone as far as he has. He was ready for it. He’s been competing at a high level for 7-8 years now.

JM: I’ve really appreciated your time today, coach. I want you to leave us with something fun. Any wild weight room stories you recall? You’ve seen some special kids in that weight room. He’s claimed he squatted over 1,000 pounds, either at Alabama or IMG. Did you see any special traits in the weight room? 

Kevin Wright: I don’t think I ever saw him squat 1,000 pounds at IMG (laughs). The one non-football related story that pops into my mind is this.

I don’t even know where we were, but I remember we were messing around in the basketball gym. I remember seeing JC Latham palm the basketball and believe me when I tell you that thing looked like a miniature ball in his hands (laughs).

I mean, the thing disappeared. It was a miniature basketball in his hands. I went, “Oh my,” like, I audibly gasped (laughs). That picture is still in my head today. He palmed that thing like it was nothing.

Okay, this kid does have big hands (laughs). You can’t really appreciate it until you get that visual. He was just playing around. I don’t even remember where we were, but I remember the image so vividly.

Shoot, his journey is just beginning. I’m so happy for him and his family. He’s going to do great things.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).

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