Shrine Bowl Interview: UCLA’s Jake Bobo Could Be Steelers’ Big Slot Answer

It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers could probably stand to acquire another slot receiver this offseason, either through the draft or free agency. Given the long history of success in finding talent in the second through fourth rounds of the NFL draft and the high price tag of any free agent worthy of being a starter, it’s likely that the Steelers will once again spend a draft pick on a wide receiver in a few months.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with wide receiver Jake Bobo in the Players Lounge at the East West Shrine Bowl this week to talk about his playing style and his hopes for the future.

Originally from Andover, MA, Bobo graduated from Belmont High School, where he was a three-sport athlete, participating in football, basketball, and track and field. Despite an extensive family tree of accomplished collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes, including father Mike Bobo, former Georgia Bulldogs quarterback who now works as their Offensive Analyst, he felt no pressure from his family. Even at a young age, he knew he wanted to pursue a career as an athlete.

As a major in Economics at Duke University, he played in 43 games with 24 starts, posting 74 receptions for 794 yards and one touchdown in his final year. For his last year of eligibility, he entered the transfer portal and made the move to UCLA. When asked what prompted the move, Bobo mentions a desire to play a more varied role in the offense but has tried to bring the same effort regardless of where he lines up:

“I’ve tried to be the same guy, same player,” Bobo said. “I think the difference between Duke and UCLA was a scheme at UCLA, [they] moved me around a little bit more.”

Although he played at the X, Z and slot positions, he prefers his time as a slot receiver and explained that “there’s just more space in there, more space to work. Some leverage against different DBs who are probably a little more aware of the space that’s out there.” He knows that the traffic can be heavy but he isn’t afraid of contact. In the NFL, he intends to stick with lighter pads to maximize his speed rather than heavier, more protective gear.

At 6’4” and 216 pounds, he certainly isn’t the prototypical slot receiver, which in the NFL is more commonly in the 5’10” to 6’2” range. He accounts for that by being faster off the line and he takes a different approach in order to win his matchups:

“I’m a little bit bigger, more of a possession guy that controls the middle of the field,” Bobo said. “That’s what I want to do is control from five to 20 yards, smack between the hashes. I’m gonna be a bigger body that makes possession catches on third down and some of these other guys are really gonna stretch the field vertically. I take pride in what I do but I know that I’m a little bit different in terms of being a slot receiver.”

He certainly seems to make it work, as he showed against Oregon and Washington this season:

When he isn’t his quarterback’s target, Bobo is a willing blocker and takes pride in identifying his man both on run and pass plays. In UCLA Head Coach Kelly’s offense, the receivers were heavily involved in the run game, which was different from his time at Duke. He enjoyed the challenge of “going down and digging out safeties”. He joked that teammate and running back Zach Charbonnet was easy to block for. You can see him in the upper left of the screen here:

Bobo understands the importance of being a generous teammate. As his connection with UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson developed and they found success, the wide receiver got more attention from opposing defenses. And when he faced double coverage, he understood that he was allowing other players to succeed:

“I think that’s the biggest thing is if I can get two from the secondary, that means we’re getting one-on-one everywhere else,” Bobo said. “When you saw that, I think in Sun Bowl we had Kam Brown and Titus and those guys get loose. It’s the biggest thing when you’ve drawn two or when you’re getting some scheme that the defensive game plan follows and is zeroing in on you. You don’t try to press anything or try to make a play when all you have to do is you draw two get your teammates open.”

Bobo has been fortunate when it comes to injury, only missing time after a preseason clavicle fracture in 2019. He recognizes the importance of taking care of his body, especially as an “old man” as his teammates call him and credits the strength and conditioning staff at both Duke and UCLA for keeping him healthy throughout the year (he’s only 24). He recently started hot yoga at California Strength in San Jose to maintain strength and flexibility as part of his preparation for the NFL Draft.

Like many players here, he will serve any role to get an NFL helmet on Sunday. At practice, Bobo has been one of the few players returning punts, where he appears comfortable. With some experience in that role in his early years at Duke, he made a surprise appearance in the UCLA season opener when the main returner pulled a hamstring, returning three punts for 15 yards. When I commented that his coach showed a great deal of trust in a new player, he laughed and responded that they threw him in there but at least they knew he would catch the ball. He would certainly be glad for the opportunity at the next level.

On a personal level, Bobo brings a level of calm and maturity that is rare in a wideout at this point in his career. He believes that football is what he does but it’s not who he is:

“I try to keep my identity as a human being a little bit separate from football…because growing up my dad always says, you know, football could be gone in an instant and I don’t want that to be a part of who I am,” Bobo said. “I want football to be what I do, not who I am. You know, I’m a brother, I’m a son, I’m a Christian, and I take pride in all that stuff, but I want to keep that separate and keep football kind of out of my identity as a human being rather than letting it kind of consume who I am.”

In what little free time his has, Bobo enjoys playing golf, something he picked up during the pandemic. He’s also a country music fan and likes getting to concerts. He lists Luke Combs, Jason Aldean and Zack Bryan as favorites.

Four of his UCLA teammates, all on offense, are here at the Shrine Bowl with him and that has made the week more fun. It has also been an advantage, as his quarterback is one of the three players throwing passes to him. He is also appreciative of the opportunity to work with Patriots coach Troy Brown, serving as both the West team head coach and wide receivers coach. He has been catching virtually every target, including this touchdown during team drills:

When asked if he had met with the scouts from the Steelers, he responded with a quick and enthusiastic confirmation. Bobo is excited for an opportunity to play in the NFL and is confident that with his experience at multiple positions and with two different teams at the NCAA level, he can morph effectively into any scheme. But most importantly, he says “I’m just looking to find my way onto a team and make a 53-man roster.”

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