Jones ready to make his mark

Roster turnover at the linebacker position has created a number of new opportunities for players like Anthony Jones. While spring practice is only two weeks old, Jones has been making the kind of impression that's difficult to ignore as he challenges to secure a starting spot among the Sun Devil defense.

Saturday marked the first scrimmage of the offseason for the Sun Devils and gave the defense an opportunity to test their mettle. Despite a number of missed opportunities at creating momentum changing turnovers in the game, Jones felt that he and his teammates on defense are progressing in the right direction as the team approaches the midway point of the spring season.

"For the defense as a whole, we could have done better," he said after the scrimmage. "There were a lot of holes, we kind of gave up a lot of big plays, dropped a few interceptions, and missed some fumble recoveries, so I definitely think we can still do better.

"But I feel like we've been improving every day," he added. "That first day break from spring break earlier this week was a big deal. The coaches were tough on us physically, but mentally I can tell we're getting better."

The Arizona State coaching staff attempted to recreate a game day atmosphere Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, putting the team through a variety specific game scenarios while also trying to maintain a frenzied pace, challenging both sides to maintain a high level of physical and especially mental toughness in their first live action.

"Today I wasn't as tired as I normally am after practice, so that's a good thing," said a smiling Jones. "Today we were in more of a game situation, where as in practice it's a bit more fast. Today the offense sped it up, but still not quite as fast as they normally are in practice, so I wasn't gasping for air as much as normal."

As one of the returning playmakers at linebackers for the Sun Devils from last season's squad, the former Chandler Hamilton standout has asserted himself as one of the early leaders on this year's defense. Despite losing a great deal of talent to graduation and the NFL Draft, Jones insists that this year's stable of linebackers have created a tight bond and still bring a lot to the table.

"As a group, I feel like we're more of a family this year," Jones remarked. "We come out here every day and we're competing, but at the end of the day we really just want the best qualified guy to win that job. I really feel like we're doing a whole lot better as far as being close and supportive towards each other now."

This offseason has been one of transition for the Sun Devil football team, as the new coaching staff has been quick to implement changes both on and off the field for the team. New defensive schemes have been introduced throughout the first couple weeks of practice, challenging the players to keep up with their assignments, while the staff continues to test the mental resolve of its team.

"I think the biggest strides we've made this (offseason) have been mentally," Jones commented. "The defense before has kind of had been all over the place, and some of the guys didn't even know if they'd be playing and stuff. This year, the coaches have made it pretty much clear when it comes to those things.

"They're doing a good job of getting the information in to us and breaking it all down so that we can learn (the system) and aren't just putting it out there for certain people to learn it."

A key point of emphasis this spring has been attention to detail and proper technique for the defense. Last season's second half collapse was in large part due to poor execution and a lack of attention to details defensively, specifically tackling.

Jones feels as those days are a thing of the past though as the team has spent considerable time shoring up their shortcomings in those areas and remain hungry for a chance at redemption.

"So far we've been having way more tackle circles than we did last spring," he said. "Obviously they know what killed us towards the end of last season, they've seen all the tape. So they've really been making strides towards correcting that and making us better.

"The coaches have been putting it all out there and making things easy for us, so it's not as hard as it was last year."

The effects of the new coaching staff have even extended off the football field as accountability, discipline and improved character have become cornerstones of the Coach Graham era in Tempe. Jones confirms that, even though Graham's time at Arizona State is young, the message has been received by his players.

"Discipline," he emphasized. "Discipline and work ethic, both on and off the field. Those have been the biggest points (of emphasis). And like I said, not just the football field, but in the classroom too. Like me, I've improved greatly. It's crazy! I've got all A's and B's this semester and I've never had that before. I think it's a part of me growing up and definitely also because of the coaches."

Coach Graham singled Jones out earlier this week after practice as one of the Sun Devils who has been having a strong spring camp and really pushing to become a starter for the defense this fall. While Jones admits the recognition is encouraging, he knows his work is far from done.

"I've had a solid spring so far but of course there are some things I know I can do better," he said. "This spring I'm just trying to get in here and learn it all, or at least as much as I can. We add more stuff each day so I've just got to get better mentally with everything."

Unfortunately, a key component of the Sun Devils linebacking core that remains missing, at least for contact drills this spring, has been senior Brandon Magee. His absence has forced Jones to elevate his game and leadership skills on the field, though the thought of having Magee back for the fall will come as a great relief to the defense and Sun Devil fans throughout the valley.

"Oh Brandon, he's fun, he's exciting and he has that leadership," Jones stated. "If we couldn't have him, man, I don't even know what it would be like. We definitely miss not having Brandon right now. I can't wait to put him back in pads."

At the conclusion of Saturday's scrimmage, the team hosted a youth football clinic on the field inside Sun Devil Stadium. It gave young ASU fans the chance to tour the locker room, learn a few school cheers and most importantly and interact with the players.

While the hundreds of kids who participated in the clinic left smiling, Jones says the experience was mutual and is something he and his teammates look forward to doing again.

"Oh man, that was so much fun," he said enthusiastically. "I mean, the kids look up to us. We're like role models to them so it's always fun doing things like this. I could do this every day. And this was like one of the biggest turn outs too! I mean, it wasn't even the spring game, it was a scrimmage."

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