Even though Javante Mackey is relatively new to high-level football, he’s realized it’s something he can’t live without.
That’s good news for Arkansas State.
In his first full season of playing collegiate football for the Red Wolves, Mackey—a 6-foot-3 linebacker—ranks 22nd nationally in solo tackles (5.0/game) and top-100 in the nation in total tackles (7.5/game). PFF rates Mackey as his team’s top defensive player on the season.
“Here’s a young man who barely played,” Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones said. “He still has a long way to go, he’s still learning the nuances of our defense, but he’s very talented. He’s been one of those individuals who has stepped up for us. The more football he can play, the better he’s going to get. We’re excited about him.”
Mackey grew up in the Chicago area and, while he has participated in football since the fifth grade, he didn’t play the sport at a top-tier level until he moved to Memphis for his senior year of high school.
“Memphis is a football city,” Mackey said. “Up north, football is not really very big, especially in the area I was in. Memphis is real big on football and that kind of made me look at things differently. I was around coaches and a lot of guys who love football. I just took it and ran with it.”
Mackey did not participate in football as a junior in high school due to COVID-19 and that year away from the game provided the spark he needed to take him to the next level in the sport.
“I really just felt like I was doing it for fun, but I was really missing football,” Mackey said. “I realized that this is something I really can’t live without. I fell in love with it, and it grew my interest. My senior year, I started taking football more seriously. I realized it was something that would allow me to provide for my family and to get better as a man on and off the field.”
Arkansas State linebackers coach Jon Shalala, who had worked on Jones’ staff at Tennessee, had familiarity with Whitehaven High School and its legendary head coach Rodney Saulsberry. He noticed Mackey on film and was immediately interested.
“He was playing more of a hybrid defensive end position, and he had no one recruiting him,” Shalala said. “I went to go watch him play the next week and he played with a high motor and high energy, but he was playing out of position for college. He was playing defensive end because he was a better athlete. Once we watched him play, we projected that this guy could potentially be an inside linebacker for us. We just recruited him and got him up to campus and sold him on what our plan was for him.”
While some programs may have seen Mackey’s relative inexperience as a negative, Shalala saw the positives that came with that too.
“He was fairly new to football; he had played high school football in Illinois but it was very minimal and he was extremely raw,” Shalala said. “You’re able to teach from ground zero because no bad habits had been created beforehand. He’s an exceptional athlete in general. His mom moves from Rockford, Ill., to Memphis to put herself and Javante in a better situation. He played one year at Whitehaven and he comes here and we were able to take this big, fast, strong athlete and spend time with him in the weight room and on his technique.”
Mackey was drawn both to the family environment he felt at Arkansas State and the opportunity to help build a program.
“If you go to a powerhouse, there’s a lot of hype and that’s cool,” he said. “But building something with a group of guys you came in with from ground zero, that means a lot because we all started it. I didn’t want to go further from home and Arkansas State was recruiting me the hardest. Coach Shalala and [Arkansas State defensive coordinator] Coach [Rob] Harley really made it feel like family. I just love the program.”
After arriving at Arkansas State, Mackey sustained a meniscus tear during the preseason, which sidelined him for the start of his freshman year. That only provided further fuel to the fire burning within Mackey to make an impact on the field.
“It motivated me,” Mackey said. “It wasn’t really hard because of my mindset at the time. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself at all. It was a trial I was going through and it was an opportunity for me to be more of a leader off the field helping guys out. I knew where I needed to be and what the steps to that were. Every day, I worked on something new. Every day, I came to the facility, whether it was a good day or a bad day, to get better.”
Shalala was impressed by Mackey’s unique dedication to recovery that allowed him to return to play on special teams in four games at the end of the 2022 season.
“He might be the first person I’ve ever seen to have surgery in the middle of the season and then still have a complete recovery and be able to play the last few games,” Shalala said. “I think the biggest thing was we told him there was a plan, you have to be in the training room two times a day and you have to take care of yourself at home. We told him he had to eat right and sleep right and then we’d see if he could come back in time. He ended up getting experience towards the end of the year. It was experience we wanted to bank reps. He was able to play and still redshirt. It’s been amazing. For him, he’s a freshman; this is his first year playing.”
In addition to his obvious talents on the football field, Mackey brings a number of traits to his role that have made a positive influence on his teammates.
“He’s a great kid, first of all,” Shalala said. “He has a really good personality, he doesn’t complain and he’s a guy that takes coaching well. He’s a willing learner, willing to be coached and willing to be pushed. The game is going to continue to grow with him as time goes on and the more reps he plays.”
While Shalala considers Mackey a “blank canvas” in some ways, he also acknowledges some of the challenges that come with a relatively small amount of football experience.
“It’s really up to us as a coaching staff to stretch him and put him in positions to continue to grow and be uncomfortable every week,” Shalala said. “Some things happen where we might have assumed that he would know things that he doesn’t because he’s never experienced them before or they’ve never been presented to him before. Those things are kind of a teaching lesson every week. The thing about someone like him that is so naturally gifted, he can make things right even after he’s made a mistake.”
A difficult start marked the beginning of the 2023 season with Arkansas State’s losses to Oklahoma and Memphis. But the team has rebounded to win its next two games, including a Sun Belt Conference matchup with Southern Miss. Mackey and his teammates are committed to staying the course.
“The first game we played against Oklahoma was a big eye-opener, but every team has to go through trials and tribulations,” Mackey said. “We got back to Jonesboro and we came in the next day, got to work and stayed together, stayed connected. It has made us even more hungry. I just take loyalty seriously. We’ve all really bought into Coach Jones’ message.”
Though Mackey’s contributions and statistics have been impressive through the first four games of the 2023 season, his coaches believe that his potential is unlimited.
“I know from a statistical standpoint he’s up there but, quite frankly, I wouldn’t even say he’s 40 percent of what he’s going to be,” Shalala said. “He’s going to be a special player; the potential is there. It comes down to how much he is willing to push himself and how much he is willing to grow. For a kid like him, the sky is the limit.”
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Feature Story: Javante Mackey Making Name for Himself at A-State. Article may or may not reflect the views of KLEK 102.5 FM or The Voice of Arkansas Minority Advocacy Council