From nowhere to emerging star
There are any number of talented freshmen in college football, but there is only one Chris Jones and his path to prominence has been a little different from the rest. His skills are a little less refined, his manner a little more unorthodox. He's the rare blue-chip prospect who earned his stars late in the game, a naive country boy from a small corner of an already small state.
Houston is barely a freckle on the map of Mississippi. Less than 4,000 people live there. Fewer than 11 percent of residents in the surrounding county have a bachelor's degree and nearly a quarter of them live below poverty.
Houston High coach William Cook welcomed Jones to the Hilltoppers in the summer of 2011 after he moved there to live with his mother. Jones entered as an unknown, not yet a prospect, not yet a full-time football player. At 6-foot-6, he liked to play basketball, too. He was a big kid who could move. He didn't know what he was doing a lot of the time, but boy could he run and jump. He was a pure athlete, as unrefined as uncut sugarcane -- coarse and full of promise.
It took half a season for Jones to be cleared to play by the Mississippi High School Activities Association. Cook, who saw Jones' potential at defensive end, first noticed his "sheer explosiveness." He was a grown man already at 250 pounds and he didn't have much in the way of technique, but he could get after it. And in high school, that was enough.
"He can cover some ground," Cook explained. "For us, he was running a 4.7 [40-yard dash]. People would run away from him and he'd catch them."
Cook raved about Jones' work ethic and leadership. He and his staff knew they were seeing a star develop even if Jones hadn't adopted the attitude to go along with it.
"When someone has punishment to do, he jumps up there and does it with him," Cook said. "He's there saying, 'Come on, let's get it done.' Something he wasn't even involved in and he's doing up-downs with them. Players his caliber don't do that."
Jones put up good numbers as a junior, but a .500 season for the team made his stats less eye-popping. Colleges weren't taking notice. The Hilltoppers finished 6-6, missed out on the playoffs and Jones went back to basketball.
John Hevesy nearly drove through town without seeing Jones. Mississippi State's offensive line coach was making the annual rounds during the spring evaluation period when he heard about Jones.
"We got a kid that's a basketball player, a big kid you might want to keep an eye," coaches told him. Hevesy, according to Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, wrote Jones' name down and debated whether or not to go see him practice.
"He had some time," Collins said, "so he went by and saw the kid doing some regular drills and the kid did a back handspring at 6-6, 260 pounds and he was just blown away. We got him to camp and he was unbelievable; his athleticism, his movement, how fast he was. We offered and he committed."
We got him to camp and he was unbelievable; his athleticism, his movement, how fast he was. We offered and he committed.” -- Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins
It took only a few seconds to tell the story because it didn't take all that long for it to happen. Hardly anyone was looking at Jones and being so close to Mississippi State's campus in Starkville, the fit was nearly perfect. As Jones said, "It's right up the road, so I figured I was still in Houston."
But that perfect narrative wouldn't last. Nothing in college football stays secret for long, least of all a burgeoning prospect. Jones was about to be pulled in so many different directions that his recollection sometimes sounds like a blur.
Jones continued to go unnoticed through his senior season. Houston High had its best year in recent memory and Jones was making play after play, but the offers weren't piling up.
"In the playoffs they try to throw a bubble screen over his head and he jumps up in the air flat-footed, catches the ball, lands, and then outruns them 70 yards to the end zone," Cook recalled. "You don't find many defensive linemen going like that."
Jones' late push earned him a spot in a number of all-star games. As Cook put it, "Chris showed out with his freak athletic ability" at events like the Under Armour Game, gaining the attention of coaches by continually doing well against the top competition in the country.
Ole Miss wanted in on him, Auburn too. He had to tell Florida's staff he wasn't interested. Cook's phone rang from 6 a.m. until midnight. College coaches were parachuting into Houston out of the blue.
It came down to a weekend-long tug-of-war between in-state rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss that few in the Magnolia State will ever forget.
Jones played in a basketball game Friday, got on the road and arrived 55 miles later in Oxford by 1:30 a.m. On Saturday morning, Ole Miss coaches were telling him how they'd make him a champion. By lunchtime, he was eating with the Mississippi State staff at his church where Jones was 30 minutes late.
"I believe they had a clue where I was," Jones said. "Coach [Dan] Mullen asked me how I was doing and I tried to avoid the conversation. As soon as I got done eating I asked if I could use the restroom and I snuck off."
Jones, who told reporters he was heading home after attending a Mississippi State basketball game, but instead wound up back at Ole Miss for its final pitch.
"He was kind of a late bloomer," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said, "but when you saw him on film do some of the things he can do, I think he's an excellent player. I wish he was here."
Jones is able to laugh about it now. He wound up pulling a maroon cap over his head on signing day, lending his signature and the next few years to Mississippi State. But he learned a lesson along the way. The messages he got on his phone that weekend opened his eyes up to the consternation of college football fans.
"People were calling me with their phones blocked saying if I don't do this they're going to shoot me and all that crazy stuff," he said. "I didn't think they'd shoot nobody for wanting to go to another school.
"This is a real rivalry right here, man."
Jones not might fully appreciate it until he faces Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. For now he's busy making his way through the rest of the SEC.
"I want to be a freshman All-American and All-SEC player," Jones said. "I told ... our G.A. He started laughing. I said, 'Why are you laughing?!' He just said, 'Because I believe you're going to do it.' "
Still unrefined and raw, Jones is making his case as one of the most impressive freshman in the SEC. He's started just three games, yet he leads the team with six tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and a sack. He'll look to continue that success against Kentucky on Thursday night.
Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall recruit who went to Ole Miss, has posted similar numbers, though he hasn't had a sack yet.
Jones and Nkemdiche form the perfect rivalry. Nkemdiche comes from an affluent area of metro Atlanta, is accustomed to the spotlight and is constantly aware of his every move. Jones, by comparison, plays the part of a country bumpkin. He said he was shocked the first time someone asked for his gloves after a game. Nkemdiche is the more technically polished product. Jones uses one of two moves: going around the blocker or through him.
"We don't have any rivalry," Jones said. "I'm just not going to let his stats be better than mine."
Despite Jones' early success, Mississippi State coaches are keeping expectations low. Collins' goal is for him to focus on getting better every day. But every day, Jones does something that wows him.
"The start of every practice we do PAT-block, field goal-block period" Collins said, laughing before he can get to the punch line. "He just gets in a three-point stance and comes screaming off the ball and blocks kicks as they try to double- and triple-team him, and he just has such great power and take-off that he just knocks basically the whole offensive line back and gets his 6-foot-6 frame up and knocks balls down almost every day.
Collins uses words like "chiseled" and "physical" to describe Jones. "He's 6-6, 305-310 pounds and I don't know if he has an ounce of body fat on him," he said.
But Jones is still the same unassuming kid from Houston.
"His personality is almost as big as he is," Collins said. "The kids love him and the coaches, too.
"If he gets better every day, the sky's the limit."
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