Stellar athlete joins Bama squad

In welcome contrast to recent years, Alabama has had several pieces of good news associated with the team recently. But maybe the best individual bit of positive news was the announcement that super-athlete Damien Jones from Prichard, Alabama has joined the squad as a walk-on receiver.

When Jones graduated from Vigor High School six years ago, he was rated among the top athletes in the state. Of course he played quarterback back then, and right now he begins spring drills as essentially a man without a position. But that challenge doesn't bother Jones.

"That's a problem that everybody faces," Jones told in a recent interview. "I'm not certain where I'll play. I want to play receiver, but if it means safety, that's fine. Anywhere I can fit in to help the team win."

As a prep senior Jones led his team to a 9-2 record, rushing for more than 700 yards and passing for 600+ more. He and fellow Tide signee Tyler Watts found themselves matched in a playoff shootout that year in which Jones rushed for 228 yards and passed for 100.

Jones stands between 6-1 and 6-2 and after six years of playing Minor League Baseball is a solidly built 215 pounds. That size has some fans thinking "strong safety."

Jones stands a legitimate 6-1+ and is deceivingly thick through the shoulders for a wide receiver. But his proven straight-ahead speed and all-around athleticism guarantees he'll get a long look from the Tide offensive coaches during spring drills.

"I never played defense," Jones pointed out. "Tackling involves technique. You can get hurt making a tackle. I'm an offensive type guy. I'd prefer sticking to offense, but wherever (the coaches) need help I'm going to help."

Jones is listed at wide receiver on Alabama's spring roster, and that's where he'll begin his college career. But even sticking to offense will involve hard work.

Jones explained, "It's a big adjustment. I was a quarterback in high school. My last time playing receiver was in recreational ball. I've got to get my hands softer and look the ball in. Before I was taking the snap (from center), then handing it off or throwing it. I'll have a big adjustment. But I think I can handle it. I just have to let my talent show."

In his final year of high school Jones batted .500, including a perfect 35-for-35 on stolen base attempts. Selected by the Atlanta Braves in the fifth round, he signed and gave baseball his best shot.

Interestingly, both Jones and Scoop McDowell (another former Minor League Baseball player currently on the team at wideout who played for the San Francisco Giants) at one time were considered the fastest athletes in their respective organizations.

"There was a time when I was coming up that I thought I was the fastest guy in the organization," Jones acknowledged. "I'm sure Scoop felt the same way (with the Giants). Of course it helps to have those younger legs. Baseball is all about quickness. Football is all about speed and ‘burst.' Once I get myself into the new mentality, I think I'll get all my speed back."

Bama lost no less than five senior wideouts off last year's squad, so placing the speedy Jones at wide receiver was an easy decision. Spring practice doesn't begin until next Saturday, but he's already started to play with teammates.

Wide receivers coach Charlie Harbison will get first crack at Jones during spring.

"We've thrown on our own some; I worked with a couple of quarterbacks," Jones explained. "We didn't throw that many passes, because they don't want to wear their arms out before spring. But I'm running a lot of routes. I'm catching a lot of balls."

Jones said that had he been eligible six years ago, he might very well have turned down the Braves' money and started his Crimson Tide career immediately. Initially there was some confusion about Jones' enrollment this semester. The rules regarding eligibility have changed since he graduated from high school, and basically the sliding scale in use now worked in his favor.

Jones commented, "There's a lot for me to get adjusted to right now, my classes and where I'm living. I had a brief struggle with the Clearinghouse, but I got in. There were a lot of phone calls that I had to make, but I'm in now. I'm ready to play."

Jones gave the Braves everything he had, but once it became clear that pro baseball wasn't going to work out there was no doubt where he would attend college.

"Alabama has been my love since they beat Miami in the (1993) Sugar Bowl," Jones explained. "Back before that Miami was my team, but I started liking Alabama then. Plus Tuscaloosa is closer to home. My family can take a three-hour ride up here to see me play.

"There wasn't a doubt in my mind where I wanted to go."

When word of Jones' intentions to join the Tide squad leaked out, veteran fans hailed his decision. "That surprised me," he admitted. "I don't think it's been that long, but if you go somewhere else people forget. Years go by and new athletes come through, but I was happy to see that some fans did remember."

Terms of Jones' baseball contract provide that his college tuition will be paid. Beginning with the fall of 2004, Jones will have five years to play four seasons of football. And as a walk-on, he will not count against any of Bama's scholarship numbers.

Given his age and professional conditioning, Jones could end up as a godsend to this year's receiving corps.

Enrolled and attending classes, Jones also wasted no time joining the Tide team for off-season workouts. "They're going very well," he related. "I really feel myself getting into shape. I'm sore everywhere. Baseball and football involve a different type conditioning, but I'm adjusting."

Jones will begin spring on offense, running routes and snagging passes. But no one will be surprised if the explosive athlete doesn't also get some reps on defense.

Will coaches Charlie Harbison (receivers) and Chris Ball (defensive backs) end up arm wrestling over his services?

"I don't know about that," Jones responded with a laugh. "As long as I have a spot on the team and an opportunity to start, that's where I want to go. They've got a lot of freshmen (receivers) coming in with a lot of seniors graduating.

"The coaches are looking with my maturity for me to step right in and be a ball player."

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