Datone Jones knows a thing or two about pressure: He's been feeling a lot of it lately because he hasn't been applying much of it.
Jones, UCLA's 6-foot-5, 275 pound defensive end, entered this season with high expectations after a dominant spring and fall camp, but was nearly non existent during the early part of the season as he tallied only five tackles through the first three games and then went the next two without a tackle.
He began the to turn things around last week against Washington State when he had four tackles, including his first sack of the season, and played what was easily his best game this year.
"The first one is the hardest one to get," Jones said. "After I got the first one, I was hitting the quarterback pretty much all night. It just felt good. It felt like I scored a touchdown. It was a big relief to get that first one."
If UCLA is going to improve this season, it's going to need Jones and his fellow defensive linemen to build off the success they had against the Cougars. UCLA ranks 112th in the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss, averaging .83 sacks a game and 4.17 tackles for a loss per game--an indication that the defensive line is not getting penetration.
But against the Cougars, UCLA had season highs of eight tackles for a loss and two sacks. It was all a matter of an attitude change, Jones said.
"I think it was just a case of realizing who we were," Jones said. "It seemed like we had some preseason hype about doing big things but we were just playing as individuals. We sat down and had a few talks and the whole week of practice we were engaged and focused and we clicked as a unit and once we clicked as a unit, we had the quarterback moving his feet and throwing pad passes."
Jones' first sack came at an opportune time. Washington State had a second and goal at the UCLA three yard line when Jones got to Marshall Lobbestael. It was only a one-yard loss, but Lobbeestael missed a pas son the next play and the Cougars had to settle for a field goal.
But Jones had perhaps the biggest play of the night on a third and eight play in the fourth quarter. With UCLA trailing, 22-20, Jones pressured Lobbestael out of the pocket, dove at his feet and tripped him up just as he got to the line of scrimmage. Had Jones missed, it would have been an easy first down. Instead, Washington State against kicked a field goal for a 25-22 lead and the UCLA offense responded with the game-winning touchdown.
"Forget the sack, that was the biggest play of the game," Jones said. "And it all goes back to going full speed 100 percent of the time. "I feel like that could have been an issue, too. I see the ball go away from me and I’d be like, somebody else is going to have to make this play. That’s how it was, but I said forget it this game. If the ball is 40 yards downfield, then I’m going to make that tackle. The effort was there that game and that’s how it has to be."
Defensive coordinator Joe Tresey had preached about the defense needing to turn up the energy level and he said he finally saw some signs of that against Washington State. Both UCLA sacks came with defenders chasing down Lobbestael from behind and tripping him up.
"We kept playing," Tresey said. "I don’t know if we would have gotten those sacks against Houston or against San Jose. Now they’re getting it. They’re going, they’re going, they’re going. I think it’s just understanding what urgency really is and what playing 100 miles an hour every snap is."
As he has struggled this season, Jones has started to lose playing time to Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Iuta Tepa and Keenan Graham. He said he sulked about that for a couple of games, which is part of the reason he didn't get a tackle against Stanford or Oregon State.
Now, however, he's refocused and vows to stop believing in his own hype and to keep his energy level where it needs to be.
"Now I know what it takes to play to my capabilities," Jones said. "The funny thing about it is I feel like I still didn’t play my best game. There’s a lot more I can improve on and I'm going to start that going into Arizona."