Jaelon Acklin was a high school senior when he and his future quarterback made their first connection, albeit an unexpected one.
“The (Western Illinois) coaches had just started recruiting me, and I was sort of keeping my options open,” Acklin said. “I saw that I got a DM on Twitter and it was from Sean McGuire. He acted like a coach. He was like, ‘I’ve seen all your film. I’ve watched all your games on YouTube. I really like what I see from you.’
“I thought, ‘Who IS this guy?’” he said.
Acklin reached out to a coach on former WIU head coach Bob Nielson’s staff, who confirmed that McGuire, a then-senior prep quarterback in Wisconsin, had committed to the Leathernecks and was looking for talent to join him in Macomb. That included Acklin, a standout player in southern Missouri.
“From there on out, I just kept in contact with Sean and we built a relationship,” Acklin said. “He’s a really relaxed, chill guy. You can talk to him about anything.”
The two would share social media messages, talk about games that were on TV and recap Western’s games.
“We’d talk about what we’d do when we were on the field together,” he said. “And we’re doing it now.”
When Acklin committed, they decided to become roommates. Four years later, McGuire and Acklin are still roommates and have become a dynamic duo that has produced 68 percent of the offensive yardage for a team that is 4-1 and ranked 14th in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 poll.
“Jae and I have roomed together since freshman year,” McGuire said. “I just love him to death. I trust him. He trusts me. That’s all you need.”
That trust began to build during their pre-Macomb days.
“It started hundreds of miles away in high school,” McGuire said. “We were two of the first commits in a great class. I love playing with all these guys.”
When the two got on the field together, their talk became immediate action on the scout team.
“Our first fall camp, in our first scrimmage ever, the first pass he ever threw to me was a touchdown,” Acklin said. “That was pretty great. I got off on the right foot with him.”
McGuire, a redshirt junior, got his first opportunity last season when he took over as the team’s starter. He threw for 2,914 yards and 20 touchdowns for a 6-5 WIU team.
“It was awesome seeing that,” Acklin said. “He’s a guy who works so hard and he really dedicates himself to the team and the relationships (with teammates) outside of football.”
This weekend, Western is aiming for a 5-1 start with McGuire as a second-year starter and Acklin as the top receiver. The Leathernecks host Missouri State (1-4) in a Missouri Valley Football Conference game.
In his first season as a starter after playing behind WIU greats Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino for three years, Acklin has 40 catches through five games. His 19 catches in a loss to No. 4 South Dakota included 12 in the fourth quarter. His 343 receiving yards were the fourth-most for an FCS player in a single game.
Acklin, a senior, is second nationally in receiving yards (742) and fourth in receptions per game (8.0) to go along with seven touchdowns.
“I expected to have success, but not this much success,” he said. “When people have success, sometimes they get caught up in it. I’m doing everything I normally do. I’m playing Xbox, Facetiming my mom every night. I’m just trying to keep it happy, but not too happy.”
McGuire has completed 66 percent of his passes this season, which ranks second in the MVFC. His 12 touchdown passes are the third-highest total in the conference.
“We’re confident in everything we’re doing,” he said.
That confidence extends throughout the team in terms of McGuire’s leadership.
Acklin’s experience as a high school quarterback has allowed him to understand the demands put on McGuire during a game.
“I know how hard it is to play that position,” he said. “I’m one of those receivers that don’t like to complain to my quarterback. I just show up to work and catch the ball.”
Acklin prefers more subtle reminders, such as the one he offered McGuire when he was open over the middle late in last week’s 38-29 win at Northern Iowa.
Three plays later, McGuire found Acklin for the winning 20-yard touchdown on the same play.
“If he doesn’t hit me the first time, I don’t care,” Acklin said. “If he doesn’t hit me the second time, I’m going to say, ‘Come on, Sean.’
“I usually don’t need to tell him a second time because he trusts me that much. When your quarterback trusts you that much, it makes it so much easier to get the ball.”
Missouri State (1-4, 0-2 MVFC) at Western Illinois (4-1, 1-1), 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14 at Macomb, Ill.
Three key matchups
- RBs Steve McShane and Max Norris vs. MSU run defense: The speedy, shifty McShane and the punishing Norris have combined to average more than 100 yards a game. The Bears are the MVFC’s worst run defense, giving up 199.2 yards.
- DT Khalen Saunders vs. MSU offensive line: Saunders is the nimble 310-pound sack leader for WIU with 4.5 this season. MSU’s line has yielded 14 sacks, the highest total allowed in the conference.
- WIU special teams vs. Deion Holliman: A senior return specialist, Holliman had 221 kickoff return yards last week to break the MVFC career record. He also snapped Missouri State’s career record in the same game.
WIU wide receiver Jaelon Acklin is on pace for 88 receptions, 1,632 yards and 15 touchdowns. The current school records for a single season are 83 catches (Lance Lenoir, 2015), 1,184 yards (Lenoir, 2015) and 14 TDs (Lito Senatus, 2010).