Jones is grinning yet there is a maturing edge to his self-impression. Going into his second Mississippi State season, the young beast of 2013 is not only a year older. Jones figures to be a generation wiser about his own game, college-caliber defense, and the entire Bulldog program. In fact…
“I feel I’m on a more serious note,” Jones said today. “Because last year was just a learning year for me and I feel my expectations are so much higher. Last year I didn’t really expect to play as much as I did. And this year my expectations are so high that I’ve got to be so serious about everything. Now I just can’t have fun and play, I’ve got to be serious and be critical of my mistakes.”
Now before anyone starts worrying, Jones doesn’t mean he won’t have any fun this 2014 season. What the Dog defensive lineman (which specific type, to be discussed in a bit) means is how seriously he is taking everything to do with playing SEC football. From his summer weight workouts, thru unsupervised drills days with teammates, to an increased focus on practice and game video, Chris Jones is becoming a serious student of the sport.
This one-year veteran can realistically count himself among those the pups can call on for advice in stuff. Not that Jones is breaking-ahead in line on the elders, he says. Or maybe not yet?
”Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith and those guys are great, I look up to those guys and learn a lot from them. But I let them know I’m going to compete, I’m going to try to take your spot! It’s a work day every day, and us competing like this is going to get both of us better.”
Both? How about all. Because thanks to a string of strong recruiting seasons in their area the defensive lineman depth is the best of Coach Dan Mullen’s tenure. Or for that matter the best since the late 1990s, and in total numbers probably even better. The quality is certainly comparable with proven seniors like Eulls, Smith, and P.J. Jones, working with several more seasoned big bodies like Curtis Virges, Ryan Brown, A.J. Jefferson, etc. and so on.
Just don’t call it a ‘depth chart’ on the defensive front. “To be honest we never feel like we’re starters,” Jones says. “We learn who is going to start the week before the game, the weekend, and that makes us compete a lot more against each other. Because we’re all trying to out-do each other.”
In pure potential not many defensive linemen anywhere can out-do Jones. Thrown into immediate action as a 2013 true freshman, he provided 32 stops overall as an alternate tackle with three starts. But his 7.0 tackles for losses tied for most on the entire defense, with linebacker Benardrick McKinney, and only McKinney had more sacks than Jones with 3.5 to 3.0.
So the MSU mind boggles at what Jones might achieve if starting every game, or at least getting more snaps. Thing is, he will almost certainly begin this year listed second team since Eulls and the older Jones are upperclassmen and have earned starting status in their own right. This doesn’t mean C.Jones is ‘settling’ for a #2 image. Oh, no.
”You know, I played backup last year and you know if Coach Mullen feels more comfortable with me coming off the bench that’s what I have to do. But my biggest thing is I go out there and make plays, it doesn’t matter if I’m a backup or a starter.” Besides, when the seniors were mostly sidelined in spring ball it was Jones running first-team every day and he absolutely took advantage. “It helped me a lot because I got more reps and got to learn a lot more.”
But this brings up the evergreen issue with Jones. Starting or subbing, he’s doing it as a tackle. Doing well obviously, but just not from the position Jones desires.
“Yeah, I tell them all the time I’m not a d-tackle, that’s just a position I’m playing right now. I’m a defensive end for heart, you know.”
Not just for heart but in body. Sure, Jones is tackle-sized at 6-5 tall, and last year he played at around 300 pounds. By his first college spring that was down to 290 and he will take the practice field Thursday having shed a few more lbs. So mobility won’t be any problem when he is allowed to line up out on one edge. Or is it if he’s allowed to?
The duel of wills on this topic with line coach David Turner and his gifted sophomore will be a fun side-story all camp and perhaps all through the season. Jones does point out that even if he does get shifted back to his ideal position it guarantees no starting job, because there are good ones already there.
”The D-ends are very competitive and I’m trying to get back out there. D-tackle, I love it but I feel I should be a D-end!” So stay tuned for further developments there.
Speaking of developments, tackle Jones has good words about the two really big Dogs for the inside spots. Senior Curtis Virges came on strong in spring ball and is ready to rotate more in ’14. And everyone is welcoming Nick James back into the battle, after spending his second Mississippi State season on the sidelines. Redshirting seems to have done James a world of good, Jones reports.
Though, he’s not as sure about the ‘look’ his fellow sophomore sports these days. “I don’t know what he’s got on, he’s cut that hair and gone bald-headed and got the beard going!” Jones says of his new roommate. The relationship is going well because James has also bought into the need for serious film study in summer, as well as performance in all off-season aspects.
”I feel he has a change of attitude and a change of heart because he got redshirted,” says Jones. “Since he came back he wants to play as much as I do, he’s trying to compete every day. He’s a hard-working guy and I feel he’ll come out and have a great year.”
For that matter a great season is increasingly expected from and for all 2014 Bulldogs. The summer buzz was trending positively among fans and media alike, due to a strong 2013 finish and how many veterans return from a team just finding its stride at the end. The key is not letting momentum fade over the course of this camp, something the team’s leaders have responsibility for.
All of them, per Jones. He says yes, age brings some degree of authority…but at the same time old Dogs can learn something from youngsters with their energized approach to learning new things.
Which means, “You have chiefs and Indians,” says Jones. “Every one is a leader, every one at times is going to have to look up to somebody else as a leader. So there’s not one individual leader.”
Spoken like an old Dog, huh?