OK. We exaggerate. Ask the right questions on his favorite topics and the Bulldog’s boyish smile returns. Most times now though Chris Jones presents himself as, well, a grown-up. And he’s loving it.
“You become more of a leader, you know, you have to set the standard for the younger guys,” Jones said. “I’ve always wanted to do that and it’s a great feeling.”
Mississippi State folk are feeling great themselves over the grown-up expectations for the junior defensive tackle. After two seasons served in rotation duty, Jones now makes his move up to the number-one squad. He began spring ball as the first left tackle, which is where #96 should be taking his stance come opening day.
It is precisely because Jones now runs with the ones that he’s adjusted the attitude. Something about the burden of squad responsibility which comes with promotion, apparently?
Nah, more the need to do what graduated Bulldogs from the 2014 defense accomplished. Only, more and better.
“The first team is about setting a standard,” Jones said. “We have to set the bar very high. Preston Smith, Benardrick McKinney, Kaleb Eulls, those guys left a mark. We’re just trying to pick up where they left off.” And move the mark farther along, too.
This third spring is different for Jones, along with all other veteran Bulldog defenders. A new boss is in town. Several of course got to meet Manny Diaz back in 2010 on campus visits and during recruiting trips. This is their first chance for first-hand coaching by the returned coordinator.
“Talk about giving relentless effort and playing tough,” said Jones in his snap-summary of the first few days working under Diaz’ direction. “He’s a great coach and putting up great schemes. It’s all about learning the plays and going hard.”
As for changes? Not many or much so far. “It’s still about the same thing. A couple of plays are different but nothing has changed.”
Nor has Jones’ playing position. Yes, he’s still at defensive tackle. Not surprising, really, as Jones’ physique is classic interior tackle.
It’s just that after debuting as a 2013 true freshman playing defensive end, he’s always hankered for a return. To have the more-open room for movement, opportunities to come off the edge and make the big plays. Well, he can still do that…just from the inside spot. Jones said he hasn’t raised the subject with Diaz. So far, anyway.
“I haven’t done it yet. But it’s coming with time!” How line Coach David Turner responds to such suggestions, well…that approval will be tougher to obtain than permission from coordinator or even head coach. Jones proclaimed he isn’t giving up on the idea.
“I’ve cut down on weight so I should be in great position now to ask about that.” Down to 290 pounds, he means. Getting serious again, Jones knows that talking specific spots is for fun. And that in Mississippi State’s system tackles have their own opportunities to go chase quarterbacks and score sacks.
“I can generate pass rush from the inside or the outside. I just want to play whatever fits me, whatever Coach Diaz thinks is best for me. He knows what he’s doing.”
Knowing what to do, that’s part of the development by this Dog defender. So is taking on a leadership position for 2015. It’s interesting that Jones said leadership is not necessarily a function of years. The right new guy can earn the same respect as an old hand, as long as they do it right, do it well, and do it consistently.
Meaning, “You can’t really say age or maturity.”
With Eulls, P.J. Jones, and Curtis Virges graduated off the 2014 depth chart there aren’t as many tackles working in spring. This is where Jones’ experience and maturing is that much more essential. He isn’t carrying the leadership load alone, though. Junior Nelson Adams has stepped up into starting status, too.
“Nelson, he’s a guy that knows everything. You can tell him one time, go out and run it one time out of thirty plays and he’s going to know the exact play. I love playing beside Nelson.”
There’s another way to get a grin out of Jones: mention Nick James. “He’s just running all over the place. He’s like a big 12-year-old, full of excitement!” Jones said. The ‘big’ part is accurate alright at a listed 325 pounds, though “Nick has lost a lot of weight,” claims Jones. The body is not an issue anyway.
James’ opportunity for a breakout junior season is fitting that fun-loving frame into Diaz’ and Turner’s plans. Or as Jones said, “It’s all a mental aspect. And with a guy like that with his 300-plus pounds, you get him going forward and the sky is the limit.”
It’s up to Jones and others to keep big Nick moving in the common direction as Mississippi State’s spring continues. This second week has two more practices scheduled, for Friday afternoon and Saturday late-morning. That’s when the real hitting begins, too.
With Jones & Co. setting the pace, as leaders are supposed to. “It’s great, the feeling is great.”