A New Week, Another Position For Chris Jones

He's running out of new positions to play, and that's just fine by Chris Jones. Five possible spots, of three differing descriptions, are enough for one freshman defensive lineman. "Yeah, they try to move me around so I can be dynamic in different places."

Perhaps it would be better to say ‘enough for now' because the Mississippi State staff has gone wild finding places to position this preternaturally talented Dog. With good reason. No matter where Jones begins a snap he is going to take it, own it, dominate it.

A position is just the starting point, after all, from which Jones can go do his thing. I.E., raise Cain with the offense. That is about the only ‘normal' aspect to what the true freshman finds himself facing each and every new game-week.

"A normal week?" he responds to the question. "Knowing the opposition. Because I have to line up at end, tackle, nose; I never know where I'm going to play until the game."

No, really. This is the literal truth. Jones must wait for the first day of weekly installation to discover what the Bulldog coaches have schemed-up for, and increasingly around, his precocious potential. No wonder he comes to practice ready for, well, about anything.

"Nah, it changes from week to week. One day I don't know what I am, I just make plays, that's what I try to do."

Plays, he does indeed make. As an alternate on the Bulldog defensive line, Jones has gotten in on 22 tackles through the nine games, eight of them in the last three contests as his quota of snaps rises. He has started three times, most recently against Bowling Green. Realistically Jones gets about as many plays as most of the starters so that isn't an issue.

For that matter neither is how Coach David Turner and coordinator Geoff Collins are applying his size and skills. "I'm succeeding at it," Jones said. "I'm working at it. Anywhere they put me they know I'm going to work at it.

"So that might not be my position but whenever they put me on that field that's what I've got to do. My job."

Right, but what exactly is his job? The Houston High star, and most-sought defensive line recruit in Mississippi last winter, reported to campus expecting to be a true defensive end. But this was after a spring and summer where the listed 250-pound February signee grew—fast—into around 290 pounds. On a 6-5 frame that carried the weight soooo easily, too.

So on opening day, when Jones trotted onto Reliant Stadium field as a substitute, it wasn't at end. He was at left tackle. And he made an immediate impact too, getting into the Oklahoma State backfield and pressuring passers and disrupting protections, all the good stuff a tackle is supposed to do. Only he was doing it at an unfamiliar position, and as a raw rookie.

Since then Jones has scarcely had a chance to catch his breath, much less evaluate what he's doing and how it is getting done so soon in a college career. "Yeah, I kind of surprised myself," he said.

"I had to put a little extra effort into it, you know. Because in high school it was a little easier, basic stuff! And on the college level you have game plans and have certain things you have to do to help out your team."

Making tackles is the most obvious way. Jones also has a sack, against LSU no less, with four tackles for various losses. But sacks can be misleading, as Coach Dan Mullen said. "The thing I'm really proud of with Chris, that he's understanding as a freshman, is the making the plays. Which is him doing his job. He doesn't have to get a sack for him to help be responsible for a sack. He doesn't need to be the one to make the tackle to result in a tackle."

This is also why Jones finds himself slotted all across the front; because blockers are looking for #96 and his every move mandates a response that can free teammates to get after passers. Jones has been credited with seven hurries, by the way, and that's about as good as a straight sack. He's also caught up with quarterbacks trying to run, including the spectacularly-evasive Johnny Manziel last Saturday.

"It was tiring man!" he said. "When I tackled him I had to tell him man, you're fast! He's an amazing guy, you don't get athletes like that as much. And when you do it's a great thing." Oh, and what did the Heisman Trophy quarterback say in response? "He told me that's what's up, big guy!"

Something that stood out at Texas A&M was how Jones is suddenly a top option when State goes to a three-man front. Not as an end/tackle either…he was playing right over the ball, a nose tackle or guard or whatever one labels it. His size and increasing strength allows such usage, while the quickness and arm-reach still lets Jones do a lot more than just clog up the middle. He can create pressure from the inside, just like a true tackle.

Don't tell that too often, though. "I'm really not a d-tackle! I might still do it until I leave here, I'm a d-end and playing d-tackle for right now, you know?"

Yet as the bard said, there's a little protesting-too-much here. If pushed, Jones admits he is enjoying the respect his coaches show in using him in all line positions. Sure, most freshmen would rather have one job, do it a whole season or more, learn it thoroughly and even specialize. Jones? This he figures is an opportunity to expand his repertoire and his reputation.

"I feel it's making me a better player. At first it was mind-shocking, because I just wanted to come here, play end, be a pass rusher. But now they're completing me as a player, as a whole." That's another sign Jones is mature beyond mere age-years. He knows he doesn't know it all already and listens to his coaches.

"It's the mental aspect, trying to learn all these plays. And then you've got to know everybody playing, not just your play. I‘ve got to know what the end, tackle, and nose does. So it's been kind of hard."

"They got me better with my technique. Because I didn't used to use my hands, I was just quick, dip-and-rip. And now I'm a better technician guy in making plays. You learn your technique and stuff comes so much easier."

What is not easier is Jones' job in the coming game. Top-ranked Alabama is coming to town Saturday evening, with a brutally efficient offense that great defenses have beat their helmets against without impact. This is not a week where pass-rush is the first page in Dog defensive scheming.

"Alabama's the number-one team and they ground and pound, so it's going to be a physical game," Jones said. "We try to prepare for that, we have to work on technique, staying low, playing basic fundamentals." That said, when the Crimson Tide wants to throw a defensive lineman has to read and react instantly, or else. The one modest advantage, if that's what it can be called, is Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron isn't the same sort of running threat as State saw from South Carolina or A&M.

But getting to this passer isn't automatic at all. "I'm going to study film all week and see what can I do when I know it's a pass or something, and try to get the cadence and work on something," Jones said.

He'll continue working on everything in the season's remaining weeks, and hopefully into bowl camp if the Bulldogs can find two more victories among these final three contests. Come 2014 Jones and practically the entire defensive line return, so they can begin working on bigger and better things next season.

It doesn't take away from the honest wonder Jones still has that he's been put into such a spot, or spots, so soon at State. "It's an amazing thing. All freshmen don't get to do this. Some redshirt, and some don't make it this far. So it's an amazing thing."

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