Jevon Holland’s year leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft has been an education in professional football. The same can be said about most of his life, really, dating back to when he first picked up a football at six years old. This weekend, the 21-year-old from British Columbia and the Bay Area will officially enter the NFL. Holland feels like his opt-out year away from the game and his father’s own experience playing north and south of the border have given him a head start.

Holland—a defensive back for the Oregon Ducks—is one of six Canadians that entered this year’s NFL Draft and is projected by many to be the first to have his name called on draft weekend. “I’ve been dreaming for this point to get the phone call. I’ve already practiced what I am going to say and everything. I can’t wait,” Holland said.

In a storyline unique to this draft year, Holland is part of a group of top prospects that chose to opt out of the college football season because of the insecurity surrounding COVID-19. By opting out, Holland could focus solely on preparing himself for the NFL. The uncertainty of the Pac-12 season certainly helped his decision, but the timing already felt right to Holland. “I just felt it. I have always had that feeling of three (years) and out, like a lot of people do,” Holland said. “Even though I sat this year, I progressed a lot in my development. So, I went ahead and opted out and pursued my dream of playing in the NFL.”

In his year away from the game, Holland worked on honing his football skills both physically and mentally. He maximized his ability to perform drills used for evaluation (see: 40-yard dash, broad jump) and movements specific to playing defensive back. Perhaps most importantly, though, he heightened his understanding of the game. Holland became comfortable with pro football’s terminology, sets, and gap responsibilities, among other facets. Those things make up the defensive systems he will play in at the NFL level. “He’s a better football player now in this year off because he’s so much smarter about the game,” said Jevon’s father Robert.

It is cliché to refer to a player well-versed in a certain defensive scheme as a “coach on the field,” but that is the type of player Holland wants to be. He wants to understand his defence in and out. Being able to absorb and apply information is its own skill, one Jevon was passed down from his father. “He knows what it’s like to be in the NFL, to play at the professional level. Throughout my life he has been guiding me and putting me in the right place so I can step on the field and be confident in myself and my ability,” Holland said.

“Once I step on the field and put the pads on, it’s 100 miles an hour.”

Jevon was born in Coquitlam, B.C. while Robert was playing in the CFL. Like his son, Robert, too, was a defensive back, playing for Edmonton, B.C., and Saskatchewan in the 1990s. Jevon looked up to his dad as well as his older brother Jamirr, wanting to follow them onto the football field. “We’re both dream chasers and he’s chasing his dream,” Robert said.

Robert’s own football journey included a two-year NFL stint with the San Francisco 49ers in the midst of their heyday. They were pro football’s premier franchise in the ’80s and ’90s, winning five Super Bowls. Robert was off and on the 49ers’ active roster but remained on the practice roster at the very least for those two years. He practiced with the team every day and saw up close what separated average players from all-time greats like Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice. “I was basking in greatness in how to do things,” Robert said. “For two years, I was working against [Rice] in practice every single day… By the time I left there and came to Canada, I was a Jedi. I was so far ahead mentally.”

Robert has imparted in Jevon as much of that experience as he can. He felt like he understood football at a high level when he was leaving the 49ers at 26 years old. Now, Robert says his son is entering the NFL already possessing that knowledge. “I don’t need that knowledge anymore. Like, ‘Here son, I don’t need you to be like me. I need you to be better than me.’ He is the 2.0,” Robert said. 

Jevon feels that he has grown so much as a player following his opt-out, but he won’t truly know how far he has come until those skills are put to the test. “Matchups week-to-week expose what aspects of your game need to be worked on,” Holland said. “Specifically working on my game in practice and by myself with my trainer, those are the types of things that help me take the next step. But you won’t know if it worked until you step on the field and go against another high-level player.”

Some NFL decision-makers are reportedly unsure of how to accurately evaluate the highly talented players that opted out of the college season. By the time the 2021 NFL season begins, it will be over 600 days since players like Holland suited up in a competitive football game. He isn’t worried however about the perceived rust that the time off could cause in his game. “Absolutely not. I don’t have any concerns personally because I have been working out and I have been grinding this whole time. Once I step on the field, you know, I’m a football player. It’s muscle memory, it’s in me. It will never leave me,” Holland said. “Once I step on the field and put the pads on, it’s 100 miles an hour. I know that it’s going to be even better than what it was when I last put pads on. I’m just ready for the opportunity.”

Holland played all over the secondary during his time with the Ducks, the West Coast’s premier college team. He developed the reputation of being a supremely versatile player that can be deployed in a myriad of different ways. Holland played free safety, slot corner, and boundary corner for Oregon, and could even return punts and kickoffs if needed. It is a role that Holland embraces. “I try to fit into any type scheme or any type of role that my coaches see me as. I do that because I want to be as malleable as possible. I want my coaches to be able to use me in whatever way they need me,” Holland said.

Jevon played wide receiver as well as defensive back in high school. That not only gave him the foundation for learning and playing multiple positions, but it helped him develop incredible ball skills. He led Oregon in interceptions both years he played there, including as a true freshman. “Jevon is not the elite one in his group at any one thing, but he is the elite one at every single aspect of the game,” Robert said. “That’s the part that separates him.”

Jevon lived in B.C. until he was eight. Though Holland has over a decade of separation now from his Canadian roots, he still has an attachment to the nation up north. “I just view it as a long-lost home. I just feel like I have a calling to go back at some point and that point is coming up,” Holland said. The Hollands moved from B.C. to California in 2008, settling in the Bay Area. How different his path could have been if his family stayed in Canada—rather than the football hotbed of Northern California—is something that crosses Jevon’s mind often. “I feel like if I stayed in Canada, I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity or exposure as I did in America, especially in the Bay Area,” Holland said.

There is a point in every athlete’s journey when life catches up with them. Robert felt like that point could have been when he left the NFL, but coming to Canada allowed him to keep playing football and to start a family. “Canadian football saved me. It saved my life,” Robert said. “I wasn’t preparing for a second career, because you’re all in or you’re not.” Robert did find a second career, though, in professional training, serving clients from across the athletic spectrum—from high school kids to the B.C. Lions, Vancouver Canucks, and Vancouver Grizzlies. When his son became old enough, that group included Jevon.

Draft weekend is going to be an emotional time for the Hollands, who will be together in the Bay Area to celebrate Jevon’s selection. For father and son, a dream will be realized that started in Canada 15 years ago. “I’m just going to be a mess, I’m going to be honest with you,” Robert said. “My son, Jevon, looked at me when he was six years old and said, ‘I want to be like you Dad’…. He’s at the doorstep now of that dream.”