Congratulations, Dan Mullen, one of your star players was named a preseason All-American! What do you have to say?
“I think the worst people are preseason All-Americans,” Mullen deadpanned after MSU’s first preseason practice Monday. “If you’re a preseason All-American, you better finish a postseason All-American. If not, you have done a really bad job because people thought you were supposed to be good and then you didn’t do it.”
Sounds a little harsh, but it’s a very logical sentiment, especially for the player in question – junior defensive lineman Chris Jones. Getting attention isn’t the struggle for Jones. Getting the production is what he’s working on.
Those around the program know his story, a highly-recruited player – with offers from anyone and everyone – who arrived at Mississippi State as one of the biggest signees in a decade. His freshman year went very well, but his sophomore year was not nearly as impressive as he or his coaches were hoping for.
It’s for those reasons that Jones is even less excited than his head coach about the preseason awards and recognition he’s received lately.
“That don’t mean nothing. Last year I was named all that and didn’t get it,” Jones told reporters after the second practice of MSU’s fall camp Tuesday. “Last year I wanted to achieve so many things in my mind and I feel like I let myself down. This year, I’ve got that chip on my shoulder.”
He’s got a new number, too, switching from 96 to 98. He swears it’s not a “new year, new me” change, but he conceded that the best year of his career – when he was a senior in high school – came with the 98 on his back, and he’s hoping to get back some of that magic in 2015.
He’s got reason to believe he will, too, as a new scheme under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz ought to showcase Jones’ immense talents. To hear the 6’6” behemoth explain it, the defense last year had the defensive line setting things up for the linebackers to make plays. The plan under Diaz, Jones says, is for the defensive linemen to be the ones making those big plays as the scheme puts he and his teammates in one-on-one situations with an opportunity to get in the backfield quickly.
Beyond the new scheme, Jones said he expects to play frequently at defensive end, though his starting position will be at tackle. In preparation for the changes, Jones is down to 305 pounds now, rather than the 315 he played at last year.
All together, it kind of seems like the perfect scenario for a talented player attempting to have a breakout season, right?
“Yes, sir,” Jones said with his big smile. “Coach Diaz, he kind of frees us up. I’m loving Coach Diaz. I feel like he’s a great coach. He utilizes the D-line a lot more.”
Not that a new scheme is automatically going to make Jones the postseason All-American [and potential first round NFL Draft pick] he wants to be, of course. He’s big, strong and fast, and moreso than most in all three of those categories, but he has to improve as a player, too. Throughout the spring, during the summer and now entering fall camp, that’s what Jones has been trying to do. Improving his hand placement, he said, is one of the big “little” things he’s gotten better at. His footwork has improved, too, he believes. He’s learning how to stay low, as well, an important thing to do in the middle of the line.
Luckily, we don’t just have to take Jones’ word for it. Senior left tackle Rufus Warren said not a day went by when Jones wasn’t doing extra work of some sort over the summer. Much of it was in the weight room, but more often than not he was in the film room watching tape and trying to learn as much as he could.
If that part of his game catches up with his natural ability, Warren said he’ll be glad to know they’re on the same team rather than facing each other.
“He’s one of those defensive linemen that you don’t want to go up against,” Warren said of his teammate. “He’s big, strong, fast, long. I mean, you name it, Chris Jones has got it. He’s one of those guys that he’s just gonna move you, and he’s quick with it.”
Mullen said earlier this summer that for MSU to have a great year as a team, Jones has to have a great year as an individual.
Senior defensive end Ryan Brown is the leader of the defensive line, and while it might seem necessary for him to help Jones toward that goal, he said he doesn’t even has to.
“I don’t think I need to tell him anything,” Brown said. “Everything that he’s working for is right there in front of him. I think he’s gonna reach his potential this year.”