When Chris Jones first set foot on Mississippi State’s campus back in 2013, he was a sight to see. At 6-foot-6 and 280 or so pounds, he looked nothing like a true freshman. He didn’t play like one, either, posting a team-high 10 quarterback hurries that season.
But Jones was raw. A former basketball player who came to the gridiron late, he leaned heavily on his considerable talent. His maturity, admittedly, wasn’t all there.
“The time, the effort, the coaching,” he said, “I feel like I could have done a lot of things differently.”
Now a junior feeling as if the time has flown by, he says he's ready.
“It’s changed my whole attitude because right now I’m with the first-team,” he explained. “And when you’re with the first team, it’s about setting the standard. The first guy out there, you have to set the bar and raise it high enough for the younger guys to look up to that so they know what level of intensity to play.”
But for Mississippi State’s defense to thrive, Jones needs to do more than step out of his comfort zone of leading by example to be a “big brother” figure to others. For the Bulldogs to be great, he has to realize the potential he showed as a freshman to be one of the best linemen in the conference, if not the country.
“Our expectations of him are extremely high,” said coach Dan Mullen. “He came in freshman year with a bunch of hype. He had a good year, and then really learned, though. ... Last year, he was out there and people knew who he was. I think he hit a little bit of that, ‘Hey, it’s my sophomore year and I’m trying to figure it all out.’ So we expect him to be a big-time playmaker on the front for us and really jump into that starting role, claim that starting role and be one of the top playmakers in the front seven.”
It’s a conversation Mullen said he and Jones have already had this spring. The theme of that talk: desperation.
“We had a guy a couple of years ago named Fletcher Cox and Fletcher was desperate to be great,” Mullen said, referencing the former All-SEC lineman turned first-round draft pick. “He had a ridiculous amount of talent, but he also had that desperateness. He only wanted to be in college for three years and go to the NFL, and he was desperate. And it showed in his demeanor and his attitude and how he took care of business, whether it was in the weight room, on the practice field, in the classroom.
“For Chris, it’s important for him when he realizes and reaches that desperateness, the sky’s the limit because he has a tremendous amount of potential. He’s a great worker, a great kid, but there is that separation point to me who is working hard and doing things right and the guy that’s desperate to be great. When he hits that point, he’s going to take off to another whole level.”
Jones says he’s there, ready and willing to be great.
After ballooning to 318 pounds as a sophomore, he’s back down to what he says is his ideal playing weight of close to 280, where he was as a freshman. He’ll be playing a new role, too. Rather than staying at defensive tackle for one game and then defensive end for another, he says new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has been moving him around more and plans to use him at either position from snap to snap.
It’s the same defense as before, Jones says, but with some different schemes.
Whether it’s the same Jones as before remains to be seen.
“It has to be a mindset,” he said of bringing that desperate attitude to the playing field day in and day out. “It has to be something you choose and are willing to do.”