BATON ROUGE, La. -- Deion Jones probably didn’t expect his senior season to go like this -- either the good or the bad.
On Monday, the LSU linebacker was named as a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to college football’s top player at his position. And on that same day, any positive news was largely drowned out by the national shouting match over whether LSU coach Les Miles should be fired after the Tigers (7-3, 4-3 SEC) lost three straight games.
“To tell you the truth, I’m blessed and I’m honored to be one of the finalists for the Butkus, but the most important thing for me right now is to get this sour taste out of my mouth,” Jones said. “I need to taste sweet victory.”
He can get that taste on Saturday by beating Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3) and former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, who left the program after last season and is still embroiled in bitter legal wranglings over his LSU contract and buyout.
Jones was one of the few LSU defensive players who said he had spoken to Chavis since his sudden departure after last season’s bowl loss to Notre Dame. Jones said he talked to him briefly by phone when visiting the office of LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who remains close friends with childhood buddy Chavis.
“There’s no ill feelings towards him. He was a great coach here,” senior linebacker Lamar Louis said of Chavis, comments that seemed to represent the general consensus among LSU defenders. “… At the end of the day, as individuals, everybody wants to better themselves.”
Even if LSU’s seniors don’t walk off the Tiger Stadium field on Saturday with a win in their final home game, this will have been a successful season for Jones. He had started a game just once in his career prior to this season, but jumped into the starting lineup at weakside linebacker this fall after Kwon Alexander jumped to the NFL.
Teammates predicted in the spring that Jones would become an impact player, and that’s exactly what he has done -- especially in the past five games. In that stretch, starting with LSU’s 35-28 win against Florida, Jones averaged 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss per game. He posted a career-high 14 stops in last Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss.
That recent production helped Jones claim the team lead in both tackles (81) and tackles for loss (10), and he also has 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and five quarterback hurries.
Surely Jones’ recent play also played a role in the Butkus Award’s panel of scouts and journalists selecting him as a finalist alongside Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, Alabama’s Reggie Ragland and Georgia’s Leonard Floyd.
If there was an unexpected name on the list, it was Jones -- particularly since the other candidates are well known nationally while Jones essentially spent his first three college seasons covering kicks.
Jones said Monday he has not yet heard from a postseason all-star game like the Senior Bowl or the East-West Shrine Game. And when asked about his preseason expectations, Jones certainly didn’t list winning the Butkus.
“All I wanted was to be a big part of LSU’s defense, which has always been my dream, and get after it -- any way, form or fashion,” said Jones, one of LSU’s three Butkus finalists in 11 seasons under Miles. Kevin Minter (2012) and Darry Beckwith (2008) are the others, although LSU has never had a Butkus winner.
Jones’ words sound like what would come from a player who made his mark on special teams, an area where he still contributes despite becoming a starter this year. He realizes that excelling in that role early in his career played a big part in his senior-season opportunity.
“I’m not a selfish person, so it’s more like if they need me to play special teams, then I will play special teams. Simple as that,” Jones said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
Even if his final year at LSU veered off course toward the end, Jones’ recent play has been the payoff for the selflessness he exhibited as a younger player.