A first-weekend pileup rolled Jones' left leg and he's been slowed since. Not out of action, fortunately. In fact the Bulldog defensive staff might have been taking it a bit easy with this veteran, for purely precautionary purposes. Many an established ballplayer would take fuller advantage of this limited preseason regimen.
Not Jones. "A little bit but not too much though, I've got to stay polished-up on my game," he said Saturday after the morning practice. But Coach (David) Turner says he wants to save me for August 31st."
That's sensible strategy. Line coach Turner and the rest of the State staff have a sound idea what they've got in this true junior. Activated on his very opening night in a Bulldog uniform, Jones has already played in 21 career games with a couple of 2012 season starts, in SEC contests against Kentucky and Tennessee at that. He has 25 total tackles in this mostly-rotation role.
That's a count Jones can, ummm, count on exceeding sometime during the season ahead, based on how well he performed with the first tackle tandem during spring work. How very well many days in fact. Jones, linked with fellow junior Kaleb Eulls, are expected to lead the interior tackle rotation when the Bulldogs line up against Oklahoma State on Turner's stated date. Assuming each is healthy of course, as Eulls has had a few minor August issues of his own.
Jones' was more serious and even scary, though at that moment the man himself wasn't certain what had happened. How? Now that he knew very clearly.
"We were doing an inside drill. Kaleb and (offensive guard Justin) Malone were doing something and me and Dillon (Day, the center) were fighting, and just fell on me. I didn't think too much of it at first and started walking, and I couldn't even walk. So I was like yeah, it's pretty bad. It was about 600 pounds fell on me at one time!"
That's a whole lot of beef even for a big Dog to handle, though to his credit Jones kept practicing the rest of the session. By the next day he was in the boot and, as Jones said, there's still some pain. Nothing that will keep him out of the opening afternoon lineup though. In the meantime Turner has adapted nicely by working other tackles more practice snaps at more advanced levels that would have likely occurred with Jones and Eulls available full-time.
That tack changes this week though. Training camp as defined by Coach Dan Mullen is done and it's time to settle some lineups for genuine game-planning. Jones is needed now to fully-prep the front, which includes getting Eulls—the converted end—entirely comfortable as a tackle now. Jones has enjoyed watching the transition process and offered some, ahem, encouraging words.
To wit, welcome to the wars buddy.
"Yeah, I tried to tell him it's a different ball game in here now! Just one step down and it's a different ball game. But he knows, and he's a tough guy." More seriously, Jones advises Eulls not to panic about much more cramped quarters inside and endless double-teams. Drawing two blockers is respect, after all.
"You're going to have to play a lot stronger because you have an extra guy always hanging over you. I've been playing defensive line my whole life so I'm comfortable with it, I know what to expect and what's coming," Jones said.
"I try to tell those guys the main thing about playing inside is you've got to be violent, strong, and fast. You've got to come off the ball, you've got to hit them first before the offensive line gets going. And you've just have to play violent. That's what it is."
How violent, Jones had to learn the hard way. And immediately as there was no redshirt opportunity in 2011. Rated the state's best true defensive tackle prospect Jones had sufficient skill coming into college to compete for snaps. But boy, was his initiation a brutal one. His own watch-word, that "Football is not for the weak-hearted" got tested. To the limits.
"I learned real SEC football. I mean, there were a couple of times my freshman year—Alabama, LSU—I thought there is no way I can play with these guys. I went against some hosses, man! I just got did-wrong on TV! I was like dang, is it me, do I ****? No, I was playing at 270 pounds my first year."
That has been addressed with the addition of thirty more pounds and serious solidifying of everything. The rest was just surviving the first year and developing during the second. Sure, he's proud of having played as a raw rookie, but given a do-over…
"Coming from high school and then trying to play with grown men? A skill kid could probably do it because it's just a different thing. But inside? You have to be strong and I wasn't as strong as I needed to be and I was getting pushed around." Now Jones does the pushing.
And he's happy to do so. In fact, he's just plain happy. Nobody is supposed to enjoy preseason yet here Jones is wearing a smile and laughing at questions. True, many media queries deserve chuckles; yet in Jones' case it is pure good will showing through.
"It's just something about football it has just done something for me. It's given me a good life, something I never really had, so I just like being around football."
Like? Love is more like it. How else to explain the way Jones talks about summer workouts, two-a-days, training and conditioning as if he wanted to do exactly that? Well, because he does. And here's the twist: Jones understands something many players don't, that all this labor is done for only a dozen regular-season dates. "Just for twelve opportunities," he calls it. "And for you to go through all that pain and all that hurt just to come together for very few opportunities, it's something special. And in front of all those fans, it's just a great thing."
One gets the idea that football really is something special for this Bulldog. The scholarship, chance for a college degree, playing in great stadia, sure. There's all of that. Yet Jones speaks in terms that would leave today's cynical sports scribes scratching their scalps in confusion. When he talks of a team brotherhood, yeah, Jones means it. Why, he can even bring up discipline and nobody blink.
"I haven't had the best life away from football but everybody knows that," said Jones. "It's given me something I never had. A family, a real family here at Mississippi State, which is something I never had. I just try to come with a positive mindset everyday of where would I be without this sport? It's how I got looked at and noticed."
He's also earned status to be listened-to by teammates. Though, Jones said as he gets back to grinning, in a couple of cases he's among the audience for the clowns in this d-lineman class. "Oh, man, we've got so many characters! My favorite two, Quay (Evans) and Nick (James), they make me laugh so much and sometimes when I shouldn't be laughing!" Which Jones added can lead to interesting moments in the meeting room, as he has to explain to the teaching Turner what's so funny.
Fortunately the position coach has a sense of humor, too. A much more controlled one to be sure, but Turner knows when to let his guys play the fool(s) and when they are supposed to go play. Jones has melded with the new line boss quickly.
"He's just so old school! I mean, it's kind of funny though. I just respect him so much as a man. His coaching style is real calm but he gets his point across, you just have to listen to him and roll with it." Plus, Turner's approach has made it easier for Jones to learn more technical aspects to the sport while still enjoying everything about the process.
It helps that Jones is becoming something of a mentor himself, and not just to young tackles but the ends as well. One of them already stands out, literally. There's another Jones on this front, freshman Chris, and this kid is clearly precocious of both ability and body. So much so that the elder Jones is already teasing the younger.
"We joke with him that you know what, you're going to be a three-technique in the future. He's like ‘no, I'm going to play defensive end!' He weighs more than me and Kaleb and he's tall. He's a big boy." With a great big future, if C.Jones applies himself as P.J. Jones has already. "I just try to tell Chris that it's a different world for him. I can see the plays, everything goes too fast for him. I tell him he'll get the plays and to stay positive and keep his head up, he'll get it one day. He's a great athlete and he'll be something special."
Then again there are several special cases in this corps, tackle Jones among them. Evans and James have all sorts of obvious physical gifts, not least their sheer size. Nelson Adams and Jordan Washington are coming off redshirt years and developing on schedule. So Jones and cohort Curtis Virges are busy getting everyone up to speed, whether it be hot characters like Evans or the ‘cool' guy in the group, end Ryan Brown. "I've never seen him mad or nothing, he just comes to work and is calm. And just that Louisiana swag, I love him!"
"I try to be positive with those guys. Just listen to what those guys are saying, not the tone. Sometimes Coach can raise his voice and they'll probably take offense. I'm like don't listen to the tone he's saying, just listen to what he's saying." Because, said Jones, amongst all the personalities here are players to make up a great defensive line in 2013. And beyond.
"I try to take a big leadership role and try to help the young guys like Fletcher and (Josh) Boyd did to me. You know, bring them under the wing and emphasize technique and work every day. You have to work at your craft, you have to have a lot of patience. And understand what's unique about football, you get so many different people from so many different backgrounds. And then we all l come together to try to accomplish one goal, to win a SEC championship. It's interesting just to figure out people, you know? But I like it, it's pretty cool."
And fun. Which gets serious in less than two weeks now when Mississippi State heads for Houston and the Labor Day weekend debut. Well before then though Jones figures to be full-speed and full-health…and if he isn't well, he ain't gonna show otherwise.
"I'm ready to get back in a stance."