During Morgan State’s heartbreaking 24-21 loss to Akron last weekend, Bears defensive back Jordan Toles snagged two interceptions and had five tackles in the unsuccessful upset bid.
Toles was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week. He is one of the leaders of a defense that is ranked No. 1 in FCS in turnovers gained with nine. It is No. 4 in interceptions through two games with four, and the unit is among the top 10 in the country, surrendering only 265 yards per game.
At 6 p.m. on Saturday, the Bears will face Towson at home in the Battle for Greater Baltimore. Each team will be hoping this game is a rebound performance. Towson has lost its first two games of the season.
But the excitement about what the future holds for Morgan State is palpable, especially after the Bears’ impressive season-opening win against Richmond.
One key member of that success for Morgan State has been Toles.
“Jordan is a supreme physical presence in the defensive backfield,” Morgan State head coach Damon Wilson said. “He can cover a lot of ground, and he plays with passion. He loves the game, and he’s getting better every day. He has a lot of God-given ability, but he also stays in the film room to get a better understanding of our schemes and defensive concepts.”
Coming out of high school at St. Frances Academy, Toles, a Baltimore native who grew up on Boarman Avenue in Park Heights, a close-knit block where many of his family members resided, was among the top-ranked safeties in America. He entertained scholarship offers from some of the most prominent college football programs.
But, as he likes to say, “I didn’t choose football; football chose me.”
There was plenty of buzz surrounding his name when he enrolled at St. Frances, but that was because he was ranked among the best rising ninth graders in the country in basketball.
“Coming into high school, there was a lot of anticipation about Jordan suiting up for our basketball team,” St. Frances basketball coach and athletic director Nick Myles said. “He was an incredibly talented and athletic guard whose future was definitely slated to be a high-impact, high-major college basketball player for an NCAA team with national championship aspirations.”
Toles’ only experience on the gridiron came playing on a local Pop Warner program when he was 8. Three games into the next season, when he broke his hand, his father told him, “Nah, we’re giving this football thing up.”
A fast, strong combo guard, he was drawing interest from college basketball programs as an eighth grader.
“The plan was to come to St. Frances to play basketball,” Toles said. “Football was never part of the plan.”
But during his freshman year, he noticed the parade of college football coaches who came to visit the school. Alabama, Ohio State, Maryland, Penn State and Michigan were among the programs that consistently visited the small Catholic East Baltimore school that sits in the shadow of the city jail.
Walking through the dining room one day, the football coach, Messay Hailemariam, introduced him to visiting coaches from Syracuse, Iowa and Maryland.
“He introduced me to them and, when I walked away, he showed them some of my basketball highlight clips,” Toles said. “They came up to me and basically said, based off of what they saw in terms of raw talent and athleticism, that if I decided to play football at St. Frances they’d extend me a scholarship offer, that they saw something in me as an athlete that they could work with.”
That next summer, he donned football pads for the first time since he was 9 and worked out with the team’s wide receivers. But showing up at a national powerhouse like St. Frances without any real experience is an uphill battle as it relates to seeing serious playing time.
“When we were considering admitting him to St. Frances, I knew he was a special basketball player,” Hailemariam said. “But I also saw a kid with a ton of talent and athleticism that could contribute to our football program if he had a desire to play both sports.”
Toles’ understanding of the game was limited. Despite his strength, speed, quickness and instincts, he had trouble learning the plays, the routes and how to catch the ball. The team’s starting safety tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the first game. The next, the second-string safety tore an ACL as well.
“I really didn’t like getting hit and was interested in giving defense a try,” Toles said. “The coaches asked me if I would give safety a try. I knew it was going to take a long time to get comfortable playing receiver, but I had a chance to see some significant playing time on defense due to injuries. So I decided to give it a shot.”
The week prior to his first game, he spent every practice learning how to backpedal. The game plan for the safeties and corners was simplified due to his limited grasp of the playbook.
“I was just learning the game and didn’t know the plays,” Toles said. “In that first game, I had an interception, eight tackles and returned a fumble for a touchdown. The coaches were all surprised, and it definitely surprised me as well.”
The official football scholarship offers started trickling in, to go with those he’d received for basketball.
During his senior season, after which he was named a prep all-American, he was leaning toward accepting Ohio State’s football scholarship. He was comfortable with the coaching staff, and he felt like the Buckeyes’ playing style matched his skill set. But when LSU offered a football scholarship he was intrigued because the school had previously offered him a scholarship to play basketball.
“LSU is known as Defensive Back University, DBU, and they routinely produce elite NFL talent at the cornerback and safety positions,” Toles said. “They’d already offered me for basketball, so my goal was to go there and play both sports. And given the fact that I was still just beginning to learn the game, I thought, ‘What better way to learn than at a program that routinely sends defensive backs into the NFL?’”
But things in Baton Rouge didn’t go as planned.
He graduated early and enrolled at LSU in January in order to participate in spring practices. But the COVID pandemic hit and the players were sent home after three days of spring ball. He played sparingly as a freshman.
“I got on the field a little bit but not as much as I would have liked,” Toles said. “Obviously, I was a freshman and the depth chart was deep. But I felt like I showed in practices that I could compete at that level, and I also felt like I wasn’t being given a fair chance.”
Throughout that next spring, he practiced with the starting defense. But, when a bunch of transfers showed up in the fall, he noticed he was now listed as third on the depth chart.
When a new coaching staff arrived, led by former Notre Dame coach Chip Kelly, many players transferred. A few days into the 2022 fall semester Toles followed suit and entered the transfer portal.
He’d originally made a verbal commitment to Boston College and was actually in possession of the BC playbook as he packed up his dorm room in Baton Rouge. But the administrative process was moving slowly, and there was no guarantee he’d be accepted and cleared to play before fall classes started.
That’s when he decided to come home to play for Morgan State.
“The situation at LSU didn’t necessarily meet his needs,” Wilson said. “At Morgan, we have a smaller environment and he gets to have a more personal relationship with the coaching staff and the academic support team. His football brain is starting to catch up with his physical attributes, and that has been a joy to watch.”
Last year, Toles collected 48 tackles, 30 solo, along with three tackles for loss and a sack, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked a kick.
But his first game with the Bears validated his decision to seek a new start after two frustrating years at LSU. Because he’d only participated in seven practices before the season kicked off, he didn’t start the team’s first game against Georgia Southern. But, once he took the field after a few possessions, he cemented himself in the defense.
“Jordan has the personality to lead others in a positive manner,” Wilson said. “He’s obviously very talented, and he lights up a room. I’m impressed with the maturity he’s shown since he transferred in. He has a lot of football left in him, and I really think he has the ability to play at the next level in the NFL on Sundays. I’m anxious to see how it all plays out when everything falls into place.”
Prior to the game, he told Wilson, “Thank you for this opportunity, for real. That’s all I ever wanted was an opportunity.”
He was inserted on the third drive of the game. On the third snap of that Georgia Southern possession, he intercepted a pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown.
As he returned to Morgan’s jubilant bench, he kept screaming, “I knew it! I knew it! I told ya’ll!”
He was referring to the folks at LSU.
“The guys are working, the coaches are doing a great job and we’re acquiring talent,” Wilson said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
A big part of that is the dominant defense, led by the hometown kid who came back to Baltimore because he wanted to feel valued and needed.
“My main goal right now is to be the best person and player that I can be, elevating my way of thinking and living,” Toles said. “I have some great teammates that are making me look good. And I’m proud that I’m on track to graduate. That’s a big thing in my family, and I have 17 younger cousins and people in the community looking up to me. But right now I’m not trying to get ahead of myself. My whole thing this weekend is helping the Morgan State Bears to beat up on Towson.”