By JOEL COLEMAN
It only seems like yesterday that Chris Jones was the talk of the state of Mississippi.
Rated as the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect out of Houston High School in 2013 by 247Sports, the defensive lineman was the central figure in one of the Magnolia State’s most hotly-contested recruiting battles in recent memory. Depending on the source, Jones was reportedly bound for both Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the hours leading up to National Signing Day that year. Ultimately, he put his name on the dotted line to come to Starkville.
Jones is now about to begin his third season at Mississippi State. He’s had a solid first two campaigns, playing in every game since he arrived on campus. While he’s had his moments and put up respectable numbers, Jones is ready to take things up a notch in his junior year.
The hype has already begun for Jones. He’s been given numerous preseason accolades, perhaps most notably, a preseason first-team All-American mention from Sporting News.
Head coach Dan Mullen says now, it’s all on Jones to live up to the lofty expectations.
“He has to play like we expect him to play,” Mullen said. “He gets a lot of the preseason hype and all of this stuff, but you have to play that way. I think the worst people are preseason All-Americans. If you are a preseason All-American, you better finish a postseason All-American. If not, you have done a really bad job because people thought you were supposed to be good and then you didn’t do it. With a guy like him, we need him to play like a big-time player. Play with a sense of urgency to try and dominate games.”
Jones plans to do just that.
“I’ve got to be more of a leader,” Jones said. “I’ve got to be unblockable. That’s on every play, not just one or two plays. I’ve got to be consistent with it.”
A reliable, steady, dominant Jones should be a scary thought for opposing offensive coordinators. Perhaps even more terrifying is how effective the entire MSU defensive line might become if Jones progresses the way he hopes.
Though on the surface, the departures of Preston Smith, P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls might seem like too big of a blow for the Bulldogs to overcome, Jones foresees this rebuilt line having a leg up on the one that came before it.
“We’re going to be tough up front,” Jones said. “Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson, those are some guys you can count on. Plus Nelson Adams and the big monster, Nick James. He’s going to create havoc. I believe we’re going to be pretty good and probably even better than last year if we put our minds to it and do everything that (defensive line) coach (David) Turner teaches us to do.”
While expected contributors Jones, Adams, Jefferson and James have plenty of game experience under their collective belts, Brown is the lone returning starter on the line for MSU. Yet he’s brimming with confidence in his unit. The defensive end doesn’t look to his side and see a bunch of back-ups that have been elevated to potential starting roles. He sees a group of veterans ready to make their mark.
“That’s the reason we rotated a lot (last year) because we had all this talent and depth,” Brown said. “We knew the guys behind us were just as good as us and that’s why I’m very comfortable with those guys.”
Count expected starting center Jamaal Clayborn as one of those that have already been impressed by the defensive line. Going up against them in practice, Clayborn is giving his teammates rave reviews and is thankful for the chance to progress both himself and the offensive line against their defensive counterparts.
“They’re looking great,” Clayborn said. “They give us a good look every day and they come off the ball hard. We’re getting a shot (to practice) against one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the country so we’re just going to keep getting better off those guys and they’ll keep getting better off of us.”
As the next few weeks play out, Mississippi State will continue to progress as they get ready to travel to Hattiesburg for the season opener on September 5th against Southern Miss. When that day comes, Jones believes the MSU defensive line will be well-prepared and ready to make a name for themselves over the course of 2015.
“I believe we’re going to create a lot of havoc and get a bunch of turnovers with the guys up front,” Jones said. “I believe in them and I think they’re just going to blossom.”
By JOEL COLEMAN