It has been a long road to where Darius Jones now stands, but time is still on his side.
Jones, the most-honored player in the Badgers 2000 recruiting class, enrolled early at Wisconsin to get a jump on his collegiate career. His tenure at Wisconsin, though, has been marked by fits and starts, punctuated with moments where the extent of his talent shines through, and clouded with bumps in the road that fate and poor judgment have left him to navigate.
Still a junior, though, Jones stands as Wisconsin's starting left defensive end, with the better of part of two seasons remaining as a Badger. In three games this season, Jones has recorded 12 tackles, two for loss, and one sack. Last season he was second on the team with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Jones entered this season as the team's top reserve, but a possible season-ending injury to end Erasmus James has pressed Jones into a starting role. Jones career has seemingly come full circle, even with time to spare. It was injuries, after all, that pushed Jones from linebacker to end in the first place.
Jones enrolled at Wisconsin in January 2000 and began his collegiate career that spring as a linebacker, the position where he earned numerous high school All-American honors, but was converted to rush end that fall in a game against Purdue after John Favret and Delante McGrew went down with injuries. Jones enjoyed the switch and Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo liked what he saw.
"In my experiences over the years, some of the best defensive linemen I've had were linebackers coming out of high school that had grown out of the position," said Palermo, who, among others, coached linebacker-turned-defensive-tackle Chris Zorich while an assistant at Notre Dame.
From then on Jones has been a defensive lineman. He played mostly on special teams his freshman year but was slated to play across the line as a top reserve in 2001. Jones recorded 10 tackles in less than two games before breaking his hand against Fresno State. He took a medical redshirt and spent the remainder of the season studying film and helping his teammates any way he could.
"I just rehabbed, worked out and watched a lot of film—studied games a whole lot more," Jones said. "That was my main goal during that whole hardship was just to watch everybody, give them a tip here and there if they needed it but just mainly to watch film and get the mental part of the game down."
Jones recovered from the injury and developed into one of the Badgers few pass rushing threats last season. His play was inconsistent at times, but Jones showed flashes of greatness, especially in a four-tackle-for-loss, two-sack performance against Northern Illinois and a very strong Alamo Bowl against Colorado (four tackles and an interception).
Jones, though, has also set up roadblocks for himself. He served a one-game suspension for this season's home opener against Akron, the result of a drunk driving and speeding charge stemming from a July 21 arrest. He has a court date set for Oct. 21 in Shorewood Hills Municipal Court. The incident was Jones' fourth run-in with the law for either speeding, drunk driving or underage drinking in a two-and-a-half-year span.
"It felt real hard because it was our first home game back at ‘the Camp' so I really wanted to be out there," Jones said. "So not playing that game really hurts a lot especially because I'm from Wisconsin. My parents didn't come up and things like that."
Last week, midway through the fourth quarter North Carolina trailed 35-20 and faced a precarious third-and-goal from the 20. Jones blew off the ball and pounced on Tar Heel quarterback Darian Durant for a 10-yard loss. On the next play, Dan Orner's 47-yard field goal attempt went wide and the Badgers were well on their way to victory.
Jones, normally exuberant on the field, exploded after that play. Never mind that he, as with the rest of the starting front four, had played nearly every defensive snap, outplaying a good offensive line and chasing the nimble Durant. This was time to celebrate.
"It always feels good to stop the offense whether it is a critical point in the game or whether it is just a regular down," Jones said. "It kind of feels like a touchdown for a d-lineman because we don't get to get there as often as we like to."
As Wisconsin's coaching staff flirts with redshirting James, and the Badgers begin the Big Ten season, they will need more of that energy, more of what Jones can bring to the table.
"It has been a long process," Palermo said. "I think Darius can probably be as good as he wants to be. He now has the knowledge and the experience that he needs. Now he needs to turn it loose."