Javon Kinlaw’s life story reads like a Hollywood script: After an unsettled childhood that included significant times of homelessness and hunger, a family home that had neither electricity nor running water, he was, in a sense, rescued by football.
His life will change dramatically in the next week.
"I think about that," Kinlaw said. "But not too much."
One of the best defensive tackles available, Kinlaw projects as a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday.
Asked if he is the best defensive tackle in this draft — Auburn’s Derrick Brown is also highly regarded — Kinlaw told me: "Hands down, without a doubt."
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"And I’m not one to brag on myself," he said. "Ask anyone that’s really around me, I don’t brag on myself. But I don’t feel like I’m the best because of where I am now. I’m the best because of where I can be, in terms of down the line, in years to come."
Kinlaw, whose talent is still considered raw in some respects, vows to work, train and readily accept NFL coaching. He believes all of that will help to bring out his best.
"I understand it’s going to take time," he said. "I don’t expect to just be able to dominate. I’m gonna work. I’m gonna work at perfecting my craft. (In) two years, three years, that’s what I’ll be. If people look back at this draft class, they’ll see the player I’ll become."
In our conversation this week, Kinlaw said he has spoken via FaceTime with talent evaluators from "about 14 teams, in that ballpark," in the weeks leading up to the draft. His personal story often comes up.
"Really, they normally ask, how do I manage, how do I maintain, how do I go through all that and get to where I am?" Kinlaw said. "I just tell them I honestly don’t know."
He is focused on the future.
"I’m more excited to play football than anything," he said. "At this point, I know I’m going to get my name called. I don’t know when. But I’m just excited to play football."
When he signs his first NFL contract, Kinlaw, for the first time in his life, should have no financial worries. He will be able to give his 1-year-old daughter, Eden — whom he adores — a childhood far different from his own.
"Money’s going to be there and that’s cool," he said. "But I love football. I’m just happy I get the chance to do what very few get a chance to do. I get a chance to play the game you grow up seeing. To have it as a job? You can’t ask for more than that."
Kinlaw played three seasons at South Carolina after a year at Jones (Miss.) Junior College. He graduated in December with a degree in interdisciplinary studies.
Kinlaw was honored as an Associated Press first-team All-American in 2019 after recording 35 tackles, six sacks, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and a blocked kick. He was the Gamecocks’ 2019 Unselfish Teammate Award winner on defense. The 6-foot-5, 324-pounder generated consistent pressure in the middle of the line.
One high-level NFL talent evaluator told me Wednesday that, although Kinlaw lined up mostly over the center or guard at South Carolina, "He is a very disruptive player in the middle with good range up and down the line of scrimmage. He has very good size and length. He will need to improve his pad level; he plays too tall at times."
Another evaluator, a defensive coach, texted: "His story is incredible, heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. I like him. He’s strong. We have other needs, so we’ll have to see what happens (in the draft)."
An evaluator from a third team indicated this week that Kinlaw’s recent medical reports came back well. Kinlaw dominated during Senior Bowl week in January, but did not play in the game because of tendinitis in one of his knees. He also did not work out at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
He was looking forward to fully participating in South Carolina’s pro day on March 19 before it became one of the many cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Oh yeah — I was going to do everything. I had prepared for that," he said. "That was my mindset. I was ready to just blow some people away because no one has really seen how I work without the pads on. For that not to happen, it was kind of like a punch to the gut, honestly. I was so ready for it. I was ready to just go out there and dominate and do my thing. I just didn’t get the chance. It is what it is."
How would he dominate?
"Everything. Everything, don’t matter what," he said. "Every drill, I would’ve crushed it."
I wondered, particularly because of his background, if Kinlaw has always been so confident.
"No, honestly," he said. "It’s something that I developed over time. It took a lot of time to get this type of confidence. But it’s there."
What does Kinlaw want his future coaches to know about him?
"It’s all about the learning for me," he said. "I learn very fast. That’s why I made the progress that I have in playing only three years in the SEC and not even playing football for that long. I learn very fast. That just comes from me wanting to be the best, wanting to be the best player I can be."
And, if you’re wondering, he said he and Brown have forged a friendship through the pre-draft process.
"He’s a cool dude," Kinlaw said. "I’m actually cool with Derrick. For me, it’s not really about who’s the better player. We just happen to be playing the same position. There are things that he does that I can’t do. And there are things I do that he can’t do. So I don’t really take it as much of a competition thing. We’re two different players."
He declined, when asked, to further compare his game to Brown’s. Truth is, there’s plenty of room for both of them in the league. And for both of them to be among the 58 players featured during the NFL’s virtual draft, beginning Thursday night.
"When I know where I get a chance to just play, where I get a chance to just develop, where I get a chance to learn, that’s what I’m excited about," he said. "I’m not really excited about hearing my name get called because I could hear my name get called and just not even develop. Not even make the right strides.
"But for me, it’s about more than that. It’s about making the strides and becoming the player that I always wanted to be. That’s what’s going to be exciting for me."
Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.
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