While the Rebels slogged their way to a 5-7 record in 2016, Jones, a rising sophomore, was a bright spot. He played in all 12 games — with four starts — as a true freshman at defensive tackle, finishing with 39 tackles.
But despite the immediate impact of the former four-star prospect from Waynesboro, Miss., Jones, when prompted, gave his performance barely a passing grade. Jones, who said he fashions his game after St. Louis Rams defensive tackle and NFL All-Pro Aaron Donald, expects more out of himself.
“I’d probably give myself like a C+,” he said. “I got thrown in as a true freshman and I had a couple of flaws, but as the season got along, I got better. I’ve just got to be consistent. No matter the down — first, second or third — be consistent, keep fighting and try to make a play.”
Jones said he learned a lot by being thrown into the fire, which he credits with his one-day-at-a-time approach. He simply set out to be consistent every practice and game. The jump in level of competition from high school to college, however, was jarring.
“You go from playing guys 5-11 to guys like 6-6, 308 pounds,” he said. “It was tough, but you’ve just got to play technique and keep being focused on what you’ve got to do.”
Undeterred by his underclassman status, Jones is looking to take on a leadership role for an Ole Miss defense that struggled mightily in 2016. The Rebels wrapped spring practices April 8 with the annual Grove Bowl game. The offense got the better of the defense, 31-29.
“(Ole Miss senior DE) Marquis (Haynes) does a good job and everything,” Jone said. “I’m not going to knock his abilities of being a leader, but obviously I would like to be a leader of the defensive line.”
Jones and Co. are inarguably the deepest position on defense, meaning the group will have to spearhead the rebuilding effort of a defense that last season ranked No. 100 or lower nationally in every major statistical category except one (No. 66 in pass efficiency defense).
Jones, though, is eager for the responsibility. And he’s got a pretty good idea of the areas in which Ole Miss can get better.
“Being consistent with the play-calling,” Jones said. “Getting the play, getting lined up. Sometimes we probably got a wrong signal or something. But we kept fighting. We’ve just got to get better this year stopping the run.”
The defensive line is under new management for the first time in five seasons. Freddie Roach was hired to replace Chris Kiffin, who left in the offseason to join his brother, Lane, as the defensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic.
Roach spent the past two seasons as the director of player development at Alabama. He coached outside linebackers and defensive ends at South Alabama prior to his stint with the Crimson Tide. He was the defensive line coach at East Mississippi Community College in 2011.
“He’s real strict on us using our hands,” Jones said. “He’s a great coach. I think he’s going to have us really prepared for this season. It’s a lot different. We watch film on NFL guys who play on Sundays and Mondays, and we transition the same technique they’re playing. It’s very useful.
“We’re all doing good. We’re getting the plays, and everybody’s playing with great technique. We’re getting to the ball and making plays.”
As has been widely reported, Ole Miss has self-imposed a one-year bowl ban for the 2017 season. Jones said the team is taking it in stride.
“We just take it one day at a time,” he said. “We don’t worry about the bowl ban. We still get 12 games to play.”