Illinois All-American Likes Tennessee

After a season in which Tennessee's offensive line struggled to overcome confusion, it's reassuring to know the Vols are recruiting an O-lineman who's driven to achieve perfection.

Mike Jones (6-5, 305) is a first team USA Today All-American offensive tackle, who led Richards High School to a 24-2 mark the last two seasons and the two most productive rushing years in team history. His approach to the game is as simple and straightforward as a pancake block.

"I play my hardest every play," he said, "and play every play like it's my last."

Playing strong-side tackle and part-time defensive tackle, Jones has posted some impressive numbers for the Class 6A Bulldogs, who went to the finals and quarterfinals of the Illinios state playoffs in 2001 and 2002. During his junior season, Jones graded out at 100 percent in a game against Oak Lawn High School. He hit the 98 percent once as a senior and averaged an astounding 91 percent over 12 games in 2002.

"It's a lot of mental things knowing where to go and when to double team," he said. "We have a lot of zone blocking where we read the defense.

"I think I'm equally good at both pass blocking and run blocking, but I enjoy run blocking more. That's what gets an offensive lineman going, just moving the ball down the field right down the defense's throat."

Attaining a perfect score means accomplishing your assignment on every play of a game — no missed assignments, penalties or physical errors. It means gaining the edge on your opponent every time the ball is snapped whether its a big tackle dug into the gap, a blitzing linebacker with a bead on the quarterback or speed rusher charging from the edge of space. Jones was in top form the night he reached the pinnacle of O-line play, and he recognizes that it took a lot of help from his fellow linemen to get there.

"That night the whole line played really well," he said. "It was just a night that I had it going. I didn't fall or trip. The guys next to me were working the double-teams really well and everything just kind of fell into place."

Ultimately, Jones knows that success for an offensive lineman is a collective effort that requires the front five to work as one. That's the type of perspective that should fit perfectly into Tennessee's offensive line overhaul.

"One thing I know with our offensive line and in our system is that I'm only as good as the guy next to me," he explained. "I work on getting the guys next to me better so they can be their best, and we had one of our best offensive lines ever this year."

Jones has improved each year of his football career which began in the fourth grade. A lot of guidance and inspiration was provided by his brother who started two seasons at Notre Dame and is currently an offensive guard with the Baltimore Ravens. His evolution has had stages of progress physically, mentally, emotionally and mechanically, but he didn't have that big breakthrough until he grew from a 190-pound freshman into a 240-pound sophomore.

That growth experience was enough to convince him that maybe basketball wasn't his best sport. But in order to compete in a high school where football is king, he had to make a commitment by reconditioning his mind and body. In order to realize that goal he decided to abandon the hardwood and embrace the gridiron. Making that sacrifice made the transition possible, but not easy.

"It was hard and it took a lot of hard work to get where I am now," he said. "As a sophomore I didn't know if I had the confidence I needed, but my coaches had confidence in me and that really pushed me to get better until I started believing in myself. Even sophomore year I held my own, but I wasn't satisifed with what I did."

That internal drive to improve elevated Jones to a different level as a junior and senior, as he transformed from a player who fought to become the first sophomore starter on the offensive line in school history, to being recognized as one of the nation's top five offensive linemen.

That background helps him understand the Vols are going through a down phase that can be turned around with a shared goal and a collective commitment. That's why Tennessee is a strong contender for his services along with Notre Dame, Iowa, Miami and Penn State. He has visits left to UT (Jan. 17) followed by a trip to Penn State.

"Really the interest in Tennessee hasn't gone down at all," he said. "Certainly not because they had a rough season and a rough bowl game. It's just a matter of time before they'e back on top and I still have a great interest in Tennessee. I loved the place when I went down there in the summer — great facilities and a great staff. It's a place I would really enjoy going to."

It's also a place he could really make a difference.

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