Chris Jones' journey from unknown to All-America
Chris Jones was discovered almost by accident, the football equivalent of an actor working as an extra who is suddenly cast in the leading role. Until a few months ago, Jones was a blip on the national radar, a little-known defensive end from a town in rural Mississippi with a population of just more than 3,600.
Jones didn't play football until 10th grade. He took up the sport as a sophomore at Nettleton (Miss.) High, and he sat out the first five games of his junior year after transferring to nearby Houston (Miss.) High. To the college football public, he was a complete unknown; most out-of-state FBS programs had never heard his name. "He transferred schools and people kind of lost him," said Houston head coach William Cook. "He hadn't visited camps, he hadn't done stuff like that."
One morning last summer Jones reported to a team weightlifting session. Cook and defensive coordinator Coty Cox invited Jones to a 7-on-7 that was set to take place on Mississippi State's campus later that afternoon. Jones had no other plans, so he agreed to tag along.
Reporters and scouts were already in Starkville to check out the other prospects they knew would attend. Then Jones showed up -- a 6-foot-7, 250-pounder with off-the-charts athleticism.
"He walked through the door and it was like, who is this kid?" said Cox. "And that's really when it started taking off."
Cox still remembers the first time he met Jones. It was the fall of 2011, shortly after Jones had enrolled at Houston. The oversized new kid at school was still adjusting to his surroundings, and he ventured to the athletic department to express his interest in playing football. "My first impression was kind of just, thank you God for blessing me with this individual who just walked into my office," said Cox.
Jones' potential has always been evident. He boasts elite size and strength, and he moves incredibly well for an athlete of his stature. But he never benefited from proper coaching. He had a Julius Peppers-type body, but Pop Warner-level experience.
When Jones first moved to Houston, he weighed 280 pounds. He'd spent the majority of his childhood playing basketball -- the sport he initially gravitated toward -- but found instant success on the gridiron. He remembers collecting 13 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two sacks in his first game at Nettleton. During his junior year at Houston, he resolved to work into better playing shape. Despite being barred from practice until he was granted eligibility, he shed 30 pounds in a matter of months. "From the transfer from Nettleton to Houston, I couldn't play five games," Jones said. "So I started working out by myself."
After he was cleared, his ascent began in earnest. He amassed 75 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and five sacks as Houston won three of its final five games in 2011. Like most teenagers blessed with similar size, Jones accomplished everything through sheer force. Both Cook and Cox remember Jones as a pure bull-rusher who manhandled smaller, weaker, overmatched opponents.
That's when Jones started traveling to events like the one at Mississippi State, where he first played against tougher competition. It's also where -- in addition to attracting recruiting recognition -- he began to hone his technique. He worked on creating separation with his hands, making his first step more explosive.
By the time the season rolled around, he had vastly improved. On the first play from scrimmage in Houston's opener against South Pontotoc (Miss.) High, Jones broke through the line, torpedoed the running back and forced and recovered a fumble.
"They tried to run a zone-read play, and I don't think they expected him to close that quickly when they tried to read him," said Cox. "They tried to force him to make a decision, and he didn't make a decision. His decision was I'm coming after both [the running back and the quarterback]. And I don't think that they expected him to close that quickly."
Jones' legend slowly began to swell. He racked up 14 tackles in a rout of Okolona (Miss.) High and 16 in a hard-fought victory over Ackerman (Miss.) High. Houston raced to a 5-0 start, uncharted territory for a program that hadn't turned in a winning season since 2006.
Then came a late-September matchup with Bruce (Miss.) High, a team that beat Houston the year before and had a group of players and coaches who taunted Jones over the summer. Jones responded with a virtuoso performance: 13 tackles and five sacks in a resounding 21-6 victory.
"He was all over the quarterback, the guy was running for his life," said Cook. "It's funny to watch a game, live or back on film, and you see a quarterback ducking out of fear when nobody's even there just because he thinks somebody's fixing to hit him."
Jones finished his senior campaign with 160 tackles, 46 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Houston went 11-3 and won its first playoff game in school history.
Despite Jones' success, however, college offers came at a trickle. He'd committed to Mississippi State in June 2012, and most SEC rivals hadn't actively tried to change his mind. When Jones was invited to the Under Armour All-America Game in October, he felt he had something left to prove.
"When you grow up in rural, small-town Mississippi, USA, you're kind of born with a chip on your shoulder," said Cox. "... I really think that throughout the season he was trying to show people 'I am worthy of attention. I am worthy of you to come here and want me to play for your program.' I know the week of the Under Armour game, that's exactly what that motivation was. He was trying to show the nation that he's somebody that needs to be talked about, too."
In truth, Mississippi State knew about Jones before last summer's 7-on-7. Perhaps wisely, the program opted to keep his recruitment under wraps.
The Bulldogs first glimpsed Jones during the spring of 2012, when assistant John Hevesy stopped by Houston as part of head coach Dan Mullen's initiative to visit every high school in the state. Like most power-conference coaches, Mullen despises letting in-state talent slip away -- an issue that's plagued the program more than once in years past.
"Jerry Rice and Walter Payton and Steve McNair and Brett Favre, none of them played here for Mississippi State, and they're all from Mississippi," said Mullen. "Just throughout history, I think a lot of great players have been overlooked from small schools here in the state."
Mullen is quick to point out that cornerback Johnthan Banks was once an under-the-radar recruit out of East Webster High in Maben, Miss. Banks went on to win the Thorpe Award in 2012. Mullen also notes that Vick Ballard was an unheralded talent out of Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston, Miss. Ballard rushed for 1,189 yards as a senior before eventually starting for the Indianapolis Colts as a rookie.
Mullen saw Jones as the next in that mold, a prospect with all the necessary tools to become a future star. He just didn't want the word to get out. And it didn't, at least until the Under Armour game.
Jones saw his first action at Tropicana Field midway through the first quarter. He entered with limited name recognition; three tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles later, he exited with video of him terrorizing the best high school offensive linemen in the country. The attention that had begun to build over the summer reached a tipping point. Within days, Jones was subject to an all-out recruiting blitz from Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss, among others.
"Chris committed to us last summer, stayed committed to us throughout the whole process," said Mullen. "But I do think it was pretty stressful for him dealing with all of the attention and how much it got thrown on."
Jones was targeted by media members, scouting services and recruiting junkies all across the South. Rumors swirled. A photo surfaced of him wearing an Ole Miss jersey. Particularly in Mississippi, he became an obsession: As speculation regarding his commitment spread, Jones claimed to have received death threats, though he said in a phone interview last Monday that he never took them too seriously.
"That's what makes [the process] so horrible," Jones said. "As a kid, you wanna be good in everybody's eyes. And people just change it up where it seems like you're lying here, you're lying there and all different kind of stuff."
In the days leading up to National Signing Day, Jones completely shut down. No interviews. No publicity. He talked through his decision with his family, and he eventually decided to honor his verbal pledge. On Feb. 6, he sent his National Letter of Intent to Mississippi State.
"All along he said, 'Hey coach, I've given you my word. I'm coming to play for you. That's what I wanted to do and that's still what I want to do,'" said Mullen. "I was getting contradicting reports sent to me every hour of what was going on. But he always kept great communication with me the whole time."
Explained Jones, "We got to bond. I felt like I was still in Houston when I was in Starkville."
Cook likes to tell a story about Houston's second-round state Class 4A playoff matchup with Louisville (Miss.) High. Houston was tabbed as a heavy underdog, and it went on to lose 46-21. But Cook remembers the game for a different reason: It's when Jones made arguably the most dominant play of his high school career.
As his senior season wound to a close, Jones had come to dictate opponents' game plans. No one wanted to run to his side. Because his imposing frame allowed him to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage, no one wanted to throw to his side, either. Cook and Cox would shift their linebackers toward the opposite sideline, planning blitzes and stunts accordingly.
On that day, however, Louisville attempted a screen pass near Jones in the flat. He pounced. He thrust his arms upward, corralled the ball in midair and galloped 74 yards to the end zone. It was a wow moment. Jones simply wouldn't be denied.
"He took it back 70 yards for a touchdown, outrunning all their skill players," said Cook. "You don't find many -- anybody at his size really -- that can do that."
Up until a few months ago, no one seemed to notice. Jones toiled in obscurity, another little-known prospect from a sparsely populated town. Even after breaking onto the scene at last summer's 7-on-7, he was routinely taken lightly, rarely considered the same caliber as five-star defensive line prospects Robert Nkemdiche, Kenny Bigelow or Dee Liner.
Not anymore. When Jones suits up for Mississippi State this fall, he'll be squarely in the spotlight.
"This is one thing that I will say about Chris Jones: If you put him against the best, he's gonna be better than they are," said Cox. "If you raise the bar, he checks you and raises it just a little bit more."
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