Walker Jones no lock for Alabama
Jones' father and two older brothers chose the Tide, but it doesn't mean he will
This story is all too familiar. There's another Jones to be recruited.
Let's backtrack. First it was Barrett Jones, who signed with Alabama and went on to become a standout offensive lineman. Then it was his younger brother, Harrison, who followed Barrett's footsteps to Tuscaloosa and saw time last season as a freshman backup tight end.
Even before that, it was Rex Jones, who played basketball for the Crimson Tide from 1982-84 before he sired three BCS-level college football prospects.
Finally, there is Walker Jones, a linebacker from Cordova (Tenn.) Evangelical who has scholarship offers from Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Purdue, Samford and, of course, Alabama.
The natural conclusion is that the youngest Jones will end up clad in crimson like the rest of his family. Perhaps, but don't chalk him up to play college football in Tuscaloosa just yet.
"No," Walker said flatly when asked if there was pressure to sign with Bama. "They are behind me whatever I do, and they know that just because it's the right thing for them doesn't mean it's the right thing for me."
Rex could easily see his youngest son bucking the Bama trend based on his personality.
"I think Walker is probably the most independent of my three kids," Rex said. "I don't think he feels the pressure to be there just because his brothers are there. I think he's going to try to find the best place that fits his ability and talents."
That openness brings a longtime rivalry into the fold. Like his brothers before him, Walker will have to decide if ties to Alabama, in-state loyalty to Tennessee or another factor from another school will ultimately dictate his decision.
If not for the rivalry and conference alignment, there wouldn't be many similarities between Tennessee and Alabama. Since Nick Saban took over the Tide before the 2007 season, Bama has won two national championships and posted a 55-12 record. Conversely, Tennessee is 33-31 and played in just three bowl games in those five seasons.
A win/loss record won't be the determining factor in Jones' decision. After all, he and his family are well aware that playing time could be easier to come by in Knoxville with the Vols in rebuilding mode and the well-chronicled talent amassed under Saban. Then there's the optimism that the Jones family feels about the Vols under coach Derek Dooley, who is about to enter his third season in Knoxville.
"They are on the rise definitely," Walker said. "It's the in-state school, so I'm definitely interested in that. It's traditionally a great program, so I think they have a lot of great opportunities."
Yet Alabama is, well, Alabama.
"It's one of the greatest programs in the nation," Walker said. "They're a great team and a great school, but I'm just looking at each school equally and keeping my options open."
Both schools have advantages over the others on Walker's list. Both will run a 3-4 defense, which Walker seems better suited to succeed in. Moreover, Walker and his family have frequented Knoxville over the years to see the Vols, often with their close family friend, agent Jimmy Sexton. Of course, he's been to Tuscaloosa to see his brothers' practice and play more times than he can count.
While Walker is open, he's far from ignorant. Don't expect a bevy of visits before he makes a decision. More likely, Walker will visit the schools he knows he's interested in. After all, he's seen the inner workings of several college football programs through the recruitment of his brothers.
"It gives me a better idea on what to look for from schools," Walker said. "I've taken a lot of visits with my brothers, so it kind of gave me an idea where I would want to go. That's helped me. I don't have to go everywhere. I can just visit places where I'm actually interested in going."
Walker recently visited with Saban, but that was nothing new. He's been in at least a dozen player meetings with the Alabama coach thanks to his brotherly ties. Walker said he'd like to visit Knoxville soon, but his basketball season will dictate just how often he's able to hit the road. Walker has already visited Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Plus, he plans to visit Stanford, which has indicated an offer is likely on the way.
However, Walker could be a tough prospect to woo. He knows all the "recruiting lines," his father said.
"I think all of my sons have realized that these guys have a job," Rex said of college football recruiters. "Their job is coaching football. They need players to do that. College coaches don't recruit you because they like you. They recruit you because they think you can help them win football games."
Walker should be able to do that. Just not exactly like his older brothers.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Walker is a bit smaller than his brothers. Barrett is 6-5 and 311 pounds. Harrison is 6-4 and 248 pounds.
No matter. Walker has his own skill set. Just ask him who the best athlete in the family is.
"I would definitely have to go with myself," Walker said, neither joking nor bragging. "Barrett is obviously a lot bigger than me and Harrison [is too], but then I'm faster than all of them. It's like the size increases and the speed decreases."
That confidence comes from battling his brothers for years.
"Sometimes I think the youngest child almost feels like he has the most to prove because he's been trained by two older brothers," Rex said. "They're all very uniquely different. Sometimes it's amazing to think that all three came from the same two parents." Aside from running faster, Rex said Walker is also a natural when it comes to football instincts. Barrett is the worker of the trio. Harrison is a mixture of both.
The mom in charge, Leslie Jones, couldn't be happier for her youngest.
"It's really fun because Walker has watched the other two, and he couldn't wait to get recruited," she said. "He was hoping he would be recruited. He was really excited."
That, however, took a while. Walker only recently exploded onto the recruiting scene. Why it took so long is a mystery when one looks at his size, athleticism and productivity.
In high school, Walker broke a school record with 95 tackles last season and has already surpassed his school's career tackles mark. He also forced five fumbles, recovered two loose balls and recorded two interceptions last season. Offensively, he scored 15 touchdowns, mostly as a quarterback in a goal-line package but some as a running back.
Yet Walker was never pushed to football. Quite the opposite. Leslie and Rex tried to expose the three brothers to anything but sports when they were young, thinking athletics would be there when they were ready.
The trio was persuaded (or perhaps forced) to sing in the choir, travel on mission trips, attend vacation Bible school and play the violin.
"They're pretty musical, but they don't get to do that very often," said Leslie, who added that Barrett is the best violin player, as evident by his impromptu family Christmas concert in December.
Barrett's unusual skill for a football player caused a former Alabama tailback to call Barrett a "nerd". Leslie didn't mind. The parenting served a purpose.
"It was great discipline to get them to stand still," she said. "You know how boys are. They want to hit each other with the violin, not play it."
The always-challenging approach to parenting continued as Walker grew up. Leslie, particularly, questioned if Walker wanted to play college football. Hadn't he seen all that his brothers had been through? Did he really want to follow that path?
And didn't he realize the travel the family would have to endure? In truth, that was never an issue. The Jones family can find a way.
One of the more pragmatic reasons for Walker to choose Alabama would be to make life easier on his family. Barrett will be gone from Alabama after this season, but Harrison will still have two years of eligibility remaining when Walker enters college.
Leslie hasn't worried a second about that. She and her husband are more than willing to travel. Mileage on the family truck or a flight or two will not outweigh their youngest son's happiness.
"We'll just do the best we can," Leslie said. "You wouldn't believe how many Saturdays that we went to two games this year because of Walker's recruiting. And we've had a Friday night [high school] game the whole time Barrett was in college. ... If [Walker] goes somewhere far away, we'll probably just have to choose whatever works out the best."
That would depend on a possible redshirt for Walker during his freshman season and just where Barrett ends up playing in the NFL.
That will be a new challenge for the Jones' family. The current one involving recruiting is much more familiar.
"The first [son's recruitment], we went through it kind of blindly, and the second time you try to correct all your mistakes," Rex said. "I think the third time will be an interesting study of making sure you go to the right places, you talk to the right people.
"At the end of day, the last thing you want to do as a parent is make a decision for your kids about where they want to go to school. You certainly want to give them good instruction and good guidance, but at the end of the day, they've got to go be a part of it and live the work out. That will be the way we do it with Walker."
One could call the third time the charm, if the last two hadn't been so successful.
Dave Hooker covers Southeast and Atlantic Coast recruiting. He has covered recruiting and college football for more than a decade. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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