Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Leader of the line
By Alex Scarborough TideNation
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Barrett Jones digs his left hand into the turf, bends his knees and listens for the whistle. As soon as it comes, he breaks, hovers low to the ground and shuffles under an apparatus built to keep linemen at a low center of gravity.
Jones pops up on the other side and walks a few paces ahead to catch his breath, then circles around to the back of the line. He removes his helmet, wicks away the sweat and politely accepts a sip of water.
Nick Saban calls Barrett Jones one of the best players he has ever coached.
A few minutes later, his hand is back on the ground once more, waiting for the whistle to blow. He ducks, shuffles and appears on the other side, circles back and removes his helmet for another dash of water.
Jones has gone through the same drill countless times. More often than not, the fifth-year senior is a few feet away, helping a teammate or shaking his head when coach Jeff Stoutland spots a mistake and rips into someone.
"You only get college once," Jones says after practice has ended.
He's been through this drill countless times, too. He's thoughtful, articulate and engaged when he answers questions from the media. He'll relax and even crack a joke or two, showing off a self-deprecating sense of humor -- playing along whenever his skill as a violinist is brought up.
He's a 300-pound offensive lineman who plays the violin. It's a comedy sketch waiting to happen. Heck, he also grew up playing in Scrabble tournaments and getting straight As. Somewhere along the way he picked up a helmet and decided he liked hitting and pushing people around.
So maybe, when you think about it, the move to center makes sense. After all, it is the position on the line that demands the most mental wherewithal. The timing, though, was curious.
In 2011, Jones won the Outland Trophy Award for his work at left tackle -- a money position in the NFL because of the responsibility of protecting the quarterback's blind side. He was a pretty good run-blocker, too. A pair of Heisman Trophy finalists ran the ball behind him at Alabama. Trent Richardson gained nearly 3 more yards per carry running to his side of the line.
Jones could have entered the NFL draft in April and been the ninth player selected from the University of Alabama. He could have taken the money and moved on.
"It will be there next year," Jones said. "Hopefully it will be."
Maybe his follow-up was a Freudian slip, maybe not. Jones says he doesn't see his return to Alabama as risk, but the risk is inherent in his decision to pass up a sure thing while also changing positions.
"I love it here and I love Alabama," he explained. "It's not really one of those things where I'm not ready to grow up yet."
If anything, Jones said one more year under coach Nick Saban could do him some good. If Alabama makes another run at the BCS, it could improve his draft stock even further, he said.
"It always seems the more success a team has, the more success the players have at getting drafted," he said. "Every year that we've been really good we've had a lot of guys drafted high, so I feel like the move to center was going to make the team the most successful and that would be helping me in turn."
Sure, Jones could add even more versatility to his resume -- he's played at every position on the line -- but more wins? He's already won two national championships and been selected to the All-American team multiple times. The Outland Trophy looked to be the cherry on top of his college career. Now, the only thing left to do is win a Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center. Despite never starting a game at the position, he was nominated for the award last month.
One thing is certain, though: Jones made an informed decision. His next-door neighbor growing up was super agent Jimmy Sexton, who works with Nick Saban and Tim Tebow among others.
Sexton's parents taught Jones' mother and father in Sunday school and have been close for as long as Barrett can remember.
More on Alabama
Everything Alabama, from recruiting to news to game coverage, is available at ESPN.com's TideNation.
"I've known him since I was a very young child with absolutely no athletic ability and no future," Jones said.
"Certainly I've talked about things with him. He was someone to talk to when I was making my decision."
The discussions, Jones said, were informal and friendly. In the end, Sexton told him to what's best for him and nothing more.
Jones decided it wasn't time to turn in his jersey quite yet. Jones, who uses his celebrity at Alabama to talk about his own faith, decided there was still work to be done.
"I love it here, I love playing under Coach Saban and I know I've learned a lot," he said. "Also, I've gotten a chance to do a lot of things and speak and share my faith that I probably wouldn't otherwise have if I had moved on."
Jones spoke with Saban and Stoutland during the offseason and settled on the move to center, which he says has come along well.
Snapping the ball was a difficult skill to pick up, but quarterback AJ McCarron said he's getting better with each practice. The two have taken to the quarterback-center relationship well, their quirky rapport taking on an Odd Couple feel.
"That kid is a handful, man," McCarron said. "I love messing with him. We had a little thing last night. Everything he said I just disagreed with, even if he was 100 percent correct. And he finally looks at me, rolls his eyes and says, 'I'm going to bed.' I was like, 'All right, just go.'
"Me and him are great friends. We mess with each other all the time. It's been a pleasure working with a guy like that."
Players and coaches agree, Jones is not your ordinary football player. It goes beyond playing the violin and going on missionary trips during spring break. Even on the football field, there's something special about him.
"He can almost beat you before you move," said senior Jesse Williams, who practiced against Jones at tackle when he was at defensive end last season, and now faces him at center from his new position of nose guard. "I think he's following me. It's not too bad. He's a nice guy. We both compete. We both try to do the same thing -- help the team."
That attitude has been contagious. Right tackle D.J. Fluker said Jones simply did what was best for the team by sliding inside to accommodate left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.
"That says a lot about his character," Fluker said. "He took on full responsibility for it. That takes a lot of pride to give up a spot at left tackle to play center."
Jones' selfless nature is one of the reasons Saban lists him among the top five players he's ever coached.
"I think he's a special person. I can't tell you what makes people that way, but he has all the right stuff," Saban said.
"If we were still trying to get to the moon, he'd be my first nomination to be the astronaut to get us there."
Jones wasn't able to let go of Alabama, but the same can be said of Saban. You don't want to see people like Jones go when you've coached as long as he has.
"Whether Barrett Jones was a football player or not, I think he would be one of the finest people anybody in this room or anywhere else would have the opportunity to meet."