Justin Covington: Path To The NFL Draft

By Callum Squires

It’s often forgotten amongst the drama, the chaos, and the millions of dollars that are thrown around during NFL Draft Week, that at the heart of it are a few hundred regular humans blessed with superhuman skill and athleticism. Many dreams will come true this week, and many will also be left broken, as the biggest league in US Sports adds a number of new superstars to its ranks. The men who are chosen, and not chosen, have gone through a lot to get to this stage, and yet often we ignore the human aspect of the moment, and their career that follows. 

Throughout this draft process, we hear stories of those who are taking their first steps into National Football League stardom. Some from the biggest stages, and others from smaller schools, or maybe schools that are more well known for other sports. In amongst the hubbub of Villanova’s legendary Basketball coach Jay Wright announcing his surprising retirement last week, I was fortunate enough to sit down with one of their star football prospects; Justin Covington. We talked about his journey as a student-athlete, what made him the man he is, and why his passion for nursing helped him along the path to the NFL Draft.

Boy From The Bronx

Credit: HUDL.com

Justin Covington is as good an example of what a true “Student-Athlete” is supposed to be as I’ve ever had the pleasure to become acquainted with. The human element of Covington is multi-faceted; He’s a supremely talented football player, with a passion for helping others less fortunate than himself. We chatted for a little over half an hour, but Justin treated me with the kindness, respect, and warmth you might expect of a lifelong family friend. The former Villanova running back is a nursing graduate, and also one of the premier FCS prospects in this year’s draft field, having enjoyed a successful career with the Wildcats. Born in The Bronx, New York, Covington had what he described as a ‘fast-paced and exciting’ life: “I really do think when people say ‘New York is the city that never sleeps,’ it’s really true”. 

Covington is grateful for the upbringing New York afforded him, and credits it with moulding him into the talkative and outgoing man I was lucky enough to interview:

 “It really helps you grow to be able to navigate life in different parts of the country, different parts of the world. There’s so many different kinds of people and things that are going on, that you really learn how to adapt and be around multiple types of people and different things at one time.”

As a youngster, Covington also took dance lessons, perhaps explaining his great footwork, and ran track, and didn’t even start playing football until he was in 7th grade (age 12-13): “In the first year I played right guard… after my sophomore year of high school, that was when I was really good. Not to say that I didn’t have NFL aspirations; I didn’t know, relatively, where I fit in the spectrum. My coach said ‘you can be really good, maybe even go to school for free.’ I was like ‘alright, that sounds pretty good!’”

The Big College Decision

Covington ended up coming out of Cardinal Hayes High School as the Bronx Player of the Year, leading to a variety of offers and options at university, but the decision making process was a lot to handle at such a young age:

“I had a good amount of schools (interested): Fordham, Bryant, Lafayette, UPenn, Yale, Princeton, Army, Navy… Picking a school is definitely a harder decision than people make it seem! Finding a good school, where not only you feel comfortable, but where you’ll develop into the best overall person is such a big decision, but it’s not talked about in that sense. People presume that you’re thinking just about football. I was 16 when I was deciding which college I wanted to go to. I definitely struggled a little bit. When you’re in high school, you don’t realise the decision (you’re making), and it’s always easy to say ‘make a decision where you’ll be good 40 years from now’ but it’s very hard to do that.” 

Again, the human element… playing Division I football is such a dream for so many of us, that we don’t always understand how difficult it can also be to commit to any one option. Covington had to weigh up his choices carefully. With a number of schools vying for his commitment, Covington had options on the table, which could all have ended up in very different paths: “My top 3 ended up being Villanova, Navy & Yale.” That’s three very different life experiences, I pointed out to Covington: “Yale was really nice, I really liked the running back coach, I just wasn’t sure how I would fit at Yale. I was very smart; I graduated 7th in my class, but at some of the Ivy League schools everyone is really really really smart.” 

But Covington found a home somewhere unexpected, in West Philadelphia: “I didn’t really know too much about Villanova as a school! When I went to visit, I had no intentions of committing, but something just felt… right. One of the really big things for me was that Villanova’s practice schedule allows for guys to have whatever classes and majors they want. They (the coaching staff) were very on board and supportive of that.”

“I knew if I did well enough, I could play professionally from here, but also in terms of school, it wasn’t like they said ‘you can’t major in this, if you miss a practice because of class you won’t play as much…’ So we got back to the coach’s office and were chatting about when I was thinking about committing somewhere and I just said ‘right now!’ My mom nearly spat out her drink! I just said ‘this place feels like the place for me.’ I ended up committing that day. Looking back, it was the best place for me to be the best player, and best person.”

The Value Of Academics

Credit: Lou Rabito (Philadelphoa Inquirer)

Covington’s passion for his academics and studies should be more than commended, especially when you consider that his chosen field of study is solely focused on helping other people in this world. Nursing has been a passion of Covington since he was a child:

“In the 7th grade, my grandmother had colon cancer. I used to help her change her bag and everything like that…she’s still alive (he says with a smile). That’s kind of where it started! Around senior year my mom spoke to me and said ‘I know you wanna be a doctor, but nursing is a little shorter, and you’ll still be able to talk to patients and stuff like that.’ Now Nurse Practitioner’s are becoming more popular. It was a shorter timetable (than becoming a doctor)… but also allowed me to get what I wanted. Not to say I couldn’t have become a doctor, but at the time I wasn’t really sure about 4 years of college, 4 years of Medical School, 3 years of residency.”

Covington sensed the value of the opportunity he had earned at Villanova, and spoke openly about being aware that this wasn’t something he could afford to waste. 

“I was just really trying to take advantage of potentially getting a free education. Being able to go to a school like Villanova, and using the people and resources they have there… At some point, it’s going to end. Whether you’re a first round draft pick, or a Hall of Famer, football does end, so being at a school like Villanova and being able to have a career that I enjoy, it’s not like when football is over I have to do this. Nursing is something that I really enjoy, and I still have goals I want to accomplish there too, so that’s something to look forward to.”

Having the mindset of knowing how important academic success now could be in his life after football is another example of Covington’s intelligent worldview. Nothing lasts forever, but by preparing himself for potential adversity post-NFL, he’s fostered a career he loves and can return to when the time is right.

From ACL Pain To CAA Glory

Credit: Villanova Sports

Covington also enjoyed his fair share of adversity on the field at Villanova. In 2019, Covington was the leading rusher in the FCS through 5 games. He had rushed for 674 yards, including going over 100 yards in all five of the Wildcats’ games to start the year. Covington was continuing his electric start to the season, with 10 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but before the 2nd quarter was over, disaster struck. Covington tore his ACL, which he acknowledged was the first major injury of his career. 

“I definitely learned that I’m resilient and a hard-worker. After going through this, I would never wish an ACL tear on my worst enemy. It helped me grow in more ways than I could have thought, because not only did it humble me (having been leading the country in rushing) but it also taught me to value the process in little things. When you go through ACL rehab – no matter how long it is – it is a mental battle.”

Bouncing back from the injury, Covington had a great 2020 season (in Spring 2021), and was awarded with the prestigious CAA Football Leadership and Excellence Award, in addition to garnering second team All-CAA accolades. In 2021, Covington helped Villanova to a 10-3 season, with 128 rushes for 739 yards and 6 touchdowns.

On the road against defending conference champions James Madison (JMU), who were ranked #3 in the nation at the time, the game came down to a gusty 4th and 1 call from Villanova’s own 29 yard line. The call was made to put the ball in Covington’s hands. This was a decision he loved, and gave Justin a responsibility he relished.

“It’s one of my favourite plays for sure. I can remember, the previous play was also a run play, and our QB – I thought he got the 1st down! – but JMU called their last timeout. We just jogged over to the sideline like ‘yeah, we’re going for it.’ I was just thinking ‘get a yard.’ I knew that as long as nobody was immediately standing in the backfield, we’d get a yard… and (he laughed) we got a yard!” 

Nova used that win as a springboard and, aside from an off-day against William and Mary, would win the remainder of their regular season contents. The Wildcats won the CAA Championship and progressed to the quarter-finals of the FCS Playoffs, before falling to perennial powerhouse South Dakota State. 

The NFL Leap

Covington’s skill set appears well-suited to success at the next level. He’s a patient runner, who can use his physicality to punish defensive players who try to meet him in the hole. His receiving skills appear to be something that could differentiate him from other candidates, as well as the success he has shown in pass blocking sets. He may not be lightning quick (there’s only so many Tyreek Hill’s in this world), but he always seems to find another gear when he needs it – much like in the aforementioned 4th and 1 situation, or at the goal line.

I asked Covington if scouts were underestimating his multifaceted skill set, including as a runner, a receiver AND as a passer! Covington went 2-3 for 30 yards as a passer during his years at Villanova. With a chuckle, he answered:

“I can’t throw too far, but I can get the job done!”

That “can-do” attitude might be just what NFL coaches are looking for out of Covington. We’ve seen FCS running backs like Chase Edmonds, James Robinson, & David Johnson all find success in the NFL through slightly different routes of entry, but the headline is: It can be done, and has been done. Why not Justin Covington next? 

“It’s funny because at my pro-day, one of the Bears’ scouts told me he thought I was similar to Jordan Howard, which I thought was interesting. I really just watch a bunch of different guys. If anything, I think I’m pretty similar in some sense to a smaller Le’Veon Bell. I really do value my vision, I can catch out of the backfield, but I’m not 6’2”.” Covington’s size and other measurables won’t be the determining factor in him making (or not making) an NFL roster. He’ll let his work ethic and performance on the practice field speak for itself.

Heading Towards The Draft

As Justin turns his focus to the draft itself, he’ll keep his family close as he awaits the news of his fate, and the next steps in his football career. He does so with the quiet and calm confidence of a man who has already been through a lot, and knows he’s strong enough to deal with whatever comes from this point forward:

“I’ll probably just watch the draft at home with my Mom and Grandma; at this point in playing football, everything is very mental. Everyone is good physically, but you can really only control what you can control. I’m just ready for the process to happen. I know, whatever happens, I’ll be fine. I put in the work, I just need one team to give me the opportunity.”

In a strange twist of fate and fortunate circumstances, I actually had the pleasure of visiting Villanova’s campus a few days after speaking with Justin. Shout out to Adrienne Grimes and Villanova’s Women’s Water Polo Team – absolute killers in the pool! Anyway, Nova has a beautiful facility, but my day was made by peering into their trophy cabinet and seeing Justin’s Football Leadership & Excellence Award on the shelves. Having been lucky enough to chat with him and get to know him a bit, I feel like he’s as good of a representation of what a young man can be. Selfless, with his passion for helping others, and nursing sure to be part of his life after football. 

Also, a big thanks to Justin for the recommendation to go eat at Campus Corner, a local restaurant literally 20 minutes from campus. That spot is the business. If you’re ever at Villanova, go get their Zilly Fries. Legit delicious. 

I’ve got all my fingers crossed that he gets that opportunity. He certainly deserves it. Whichever NFL team does decide to take a chance on Justin Covington is getting a great player, but an even better man.





A huge thank you to Justin for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchown wishes him well in his future career.