'Tennessee was always there'

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Torn knee ligaments. Sense of entitlement. Uncoachable.

Several reasons exist as to why college coaches may turn a cold shoulder to a talented high-school football prospect.

As D.J. Jones can attest, academics are part of that list of possibilities as well.

In spite of his stature and talent, nearly every FBS program in the country shunned Jones when his playing days on the prep level in Wren, S.C., came to a close. That is, except one — Tennessee.

The Scout four-star lineman hasn't lost sight of how the coaching staff in Knoxville has pursued him regardless of grades and test scores.

"Tennessee will always be at the top until the end," Jones told InsideTennessee. "If I commit or not, I will always have love for that staff. They stayed with me. I just appreciate that entire staff staying with me. They're the only school that really stayed with me when everybody found out, ‘You're not going to qualify.'"

Even the in-state schools in South Carolina that readily knew of Jones' potential didn't put their best foot forward the way Tennessee did, he says.

"I mean Clemson was…they were there at one point and then when they found out about the grades they did what everybody else did — they scattered. They said they were keeping an eye on me, and I don't doubt it. I just feel like Tennessee was always there."

After a productive season at arguably the best junior-college football program in the nation, the East Mississippi Community College defensive tackle finds himself as a prime target of universities all across the country.

So, how does a player go from a blip on the radar to a priority?

"First of all, in the classroom, I got real focused," Jones said. "Then, on the football field, I took my coaching and I applied it on game day. I just went out there and played to my ability. I wouldn't say I wasn't listening before, but I'm listening a lot more. I'm taking in everything I'm hearing. I'm getting a lot of good advice from a lot of people."

In his days at Piedmont (S.C.) High School, Jones owned opponents in the trenches simply by being more athletic and stronger than most of his foes. The JUCO level — and his personal ambition — forced him to become more of a technician.

"Bull rush, that was my main thing in high school," he said. "Now, I've learned your hands are key. Keep your hands moving. My pass rush has gotten a lot better I feel."

Arizona State, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas A&M are a handful of the schools to pile on the stack of offers coming to Scooba, Miss.

"Man, it's a huge blessing," Jones said. "For things to turn around for me like that, shows hard work pays off."

Some of the turnaround with the numerous offers is Jones' focus on himself on the field and in the classroom. Some of it is attending a quality JUCO football program like East Mississippi Community College.

"Oh, definitely, definitely (part of the attention is from playing at EMCC)," he said. "It was that somewhat. I feel like I came in here and worked hard enough to earn what I got. But, a program like this and the players like we had last year attract a lot of coaches. I just played as hard as I could."

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Jones says he will trim his list of schools down to 10 favorites and then five this summer before pulling the trigger. The question for Vols fans when that happens is who joins the Big Orange as he assured that Tennessee already has a spot in both groups: "They'll be in there."

"I'll go into the season with five or six (top schools)," he said.

The Palmetto State product says he will make some unofficial visits this summer "probably to places I know I will take my official to and then take all the officials."

The D-tackle is yet to see the campus on Rocky Top but that's subject to change.

"I cannot wait to go. I can't wait," said Jones, who added there's a good chance he takes official visits to Florida State and Tennessee. Don't expect Clemson or South Carolina to get an official visit as he's seen those campuses several times previously and wants to familiarize himself with places unseen.

The type of instruction the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder will receive is the most important factor in his recruitment.

"I feel like if I go in somewhere and I work hard, then I'll have that opportunity," Jones said. "I'm really right now focusing on the coaches — who's going to coach my position.

"I watched a lot of spring games (on TV) and that told me a lot."

Steve Stripling is Tennessee's defensive line coach, and he's already spent months cultivating that relationship.

"I'll get a call or a message on Twitter from different members on staff but at the same time coach Strip is my head recruiter."

Jones, who is on schedule to graduate from the JUCO ranks in December, says he wants to make a declaration at the "end of November or the beginning of December."

In 2013, Jones registered 49 tackles (33 solo), eight sacks and one fumble recovery.

Jones joined his East Mississippi Community College teammates in receiving their NJCAA National Championship rings on Saturday. The Lions finished 12-0 after beating Georgia Military College 52-32 in the Mississippi Bowl.

It was EMCC's second championship in three seasons and the Lions own a three-year record of 32-4.

Discuss Jones' recruitment with InsideTennessee analysts and subscribers by CLICKING HERE.

Danny Parker is currently the Managing Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the Scout team July 2011.
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