Back Marcus Jones, From Transient to Transcendent

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Marcus Jones, From Transient to Transcendent

By Jim Johnson
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Marcus Jones is a different animal. One of the most hyper-intelligent football players around, he is still an old-school, pure football player, at heart.

"I feel like I’ll never be where I want to be until my career is over because I always want to work harder and strive for the best.”
~Marcus Jones

As part of a military family, Marcus Jones moved around a lot growing up. Born in Baton Rouge, he spent time in Dayton, Ohio, where he started playing football at age four, before going back to his birthplace, and eventually settling in Enterprise, Alabama, for high school.

“My dad used to take me out in the backyard,” Jones recounted, “and I always had to have a ball in my hands. It was either a basketball or a football and I chose a football.”

It wasn’t until he had been at Enterprise High School for a couple of years, representing the hometown Wildcats, that he began to consider the idea that he could, perhaps, compete at the next level.

“I didn’t take it seriously until my junior or senior year in high school,” said Jones. “Because I had a good work ethic, my coach told me to keep playing.”

What it took so long for him to see in himself, however, others noticed early on.

“Ever since I was little I was told I had good vision,” he recalled. “My dad always told me to work on my quickness and speed, so that’s mostly what I did.”

As a senior at Enterprise, Jones’ training paid dividends. He earned First Team All-State honors from the Alabama Sports Writers Association, as well as the Super All-State Team, having recorded five interceptions, three punt return touchdowns, and a kick return touchdown, as a senior.

Despite his rating as a three-star prospect, and one of the top 50 players in Alabama, according to ESPN, his lone power five offer came from Purdue. In a tale seemingly as old as time, the larger programs couldn’t overlook a prospect’s purportedly small stature to see the ever-present big play threat that is Marcus Jones.

Ultimately, he decided to attend Troy University, less than an hour drive from the home he made in Enterprise, over power five Purdue, as well as the likes of Tulane, back in his home state, Southern Miss, and other Sun Belt schools Appalachian State, and now in-state foe South Alabama.

“The drive came into account when choosing,” Jones explained. “People don’t realize a lot of time goes into college football and on certain days I can go home and see my family because sometimes you have to get away from football. People always talk about my size and everything but I don’t really care what other people say, I’m blessed to be here at Troy and they gave me the opportunity. So, people who didn’t pick me or choose me, I really don’t care.”

“Troy has a great coaching staff,” he continued. “They told me when I came here I could play as a freshman. A lot of coaches tell you that, but it’s hard to believe until you’re playing and producing. The coaching staff and Coach Al treated me like a son and I felt really comfortable. And I liked what Coach Vic is doing with the defensive schemes.”

Despite boasting what would prove to be the best defense in the Sun Belt, with plenty of experience littered throughout, Jones and other true freshmen like Justin Whisenhunt and Terence Dunlap, among others, played significant roles, right away.

Jones remembered, “When we first came in here, we had all the freshman work out together. We all went to the first work out and it was hard, at the beginning. We had to work together through thick and thin. The older guys would tell us that whoever could play would play. Come to find out, that was true.”

Jones, and the other newcomers that proved themselves, afforded the Trojans the sort of depth that leads, and led, to a championship. Although, the transition wasn’t all sunshine and interceptions and rainbows and special teams scores.

“I was surprised at how fast the plays go by. In high school everybody wasn’t as fast, everybody in college is on the field for a reason, and everybody's good at something. Certain times at practice, guys would block me and I knew I’d need to get stronger and hit the weight room that much harder. Sometimes whenever you get hit or deliver a hit and you know how small you are, you can feel it. That’s why coaches say you have to put on weight and people don’t really understand how much you have to gain or lose because it can hurt you in the long run.”

Still, what normally is a steep learning curve was no match for one of the most cerebral young talents in the sport.

For that he thanks the leadership of guys like Blace Brown, Kris Weatherspoon, and Kamryn Melton, stating, “The guys that came before me got me into film really early. They taught me how to do different techniques and how to bait the quarterback.”

Fast forward to the end of September, Troy has travelled to Baton Rouge, Jones’ birthplace, to take on perennial SEC power LSU.

“All my family was at the game,” said Jones. “Coach gave me an opportunity and I tried to play to the fullest. We had a great scheme going into that game and we knew we were going to have to stop the big plays and things they could do.”

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Louisiana native silenced Death Valley, save the Jones family contingent and Troy faithful, with a key interception of LSU quarterback Myles Brennan.

“Coach called a certain play to where I watch number two and stay outside leverage. As soon as he goes in, I go ahead and go to the hook curl and number two ran a little post dig and then number one sat down, so I put hands on number two and dropped off the number one. He threw it and I just picked it off,” Jones reminisced.

And yet, arguably, Jones’ most impressive play of the game was one he didn’t even make -- rather, Blace Brown’s game sealing interception, with mere seconds on the clock.

“The play before that,” he recalled, “when (DJ Chark) caught the ball out of bounds (sic), I felt like they were going to do the same play because I saw the same signal from the sidelines. So I told them they were going to run a little small out, a corner, and a fade. I said I’ll take the out and you bait them to the corner. Right when it happened he said ‘You told me. You told me.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I felt it was coming’.”

Not often does a true freshman tell the conference’s reigning interception leader what play a ranked SEC opponent is about to run -- and nail it -- but not often do players with Jones’ football IQ come along.

“It’s a lot of the mental side at DB.” Jones expanded, “You’re going to get beat but it’s all about how you come back and beat that guy or have the mindset that I’m not going to let him catch the ball on me. It’s all about the mindset at defensive back.”

Just a month and change later, versus Coastal Carolina, Jones went ahead and cemented his place in Troy, and college football, history. He became just the 24th player ever, and first Troy Trojan, to score on two returns in the same game.

“Coach came out with a great plan. We’ve been working on it for a while -- acting like we’re going through the middle, then bouncing it outside. Coach said, as soon as you see it, hit it full speed and I did that. The other time they tried to stay outside and I just hit the hole and outran them. It was a blessing to set a record. I never really thought I’d do that, especially being a freshman, but I give it up to my teammates because I couldn’t have made it without their blocking.”

Nevertheless, Jones, a singularly focused winner, is not one to rest on laurels. Already having proven himself on one of the sport’s grandest stages, at LSU, and etched his name into the record books, at Coastal Carolina, the freshman found himself across from the league’s most prolific offense, in Arkansas State, with a share of the conference title on the line.

Early in the second quarter, Jones extended the Trojans’ lead to two scores, whilst setting a new Troy record for return touchdowns, taking a kickoff 99 yards to paydirt. He did it again in the fourth quarter, intercepting Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen, and going the length of the field for a pick-six.

There’s no way to prove it, and Jones would never admit it, himself, but there is a compelling case to be made that, without his contributions, it would have been the Red Wolves winning a share of the Sun Belt crown, that night.

For his efforts, over the course of the season, he was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, an all-conference return specialist and all-purpose player, as well as a Freshman All-American by ESPN.

Jones grinned “It means a lot. When I first came in, I wasn’t thinking let me get this or that. I just worked on my craft with my teammates over the summer. They told me whenever you work hard and stay humble you will earn a reward and I guess that’s my reward.”

“I’m onto the next thing. It’s a great accolade, but I’m not where I want to be. I want to keep working out. I feel like I’ll never be where I want to be until my career is over because I always want to work harder and strive for the best.”

With fellow defensive backs like Melton, Weatherspoon, and Jalen Harris on the way out, Jones, even as a sophomore, will be expected to bear a greater leadership burden because of his performance.

He’s already preparing himself, though, stating, “I started taking more leadership roles with practice going on the last two weeks because I knew the seniors would be going out and people go out every year and graduate to move on to bigger and better things. But it doesn’t matter what classification you are, senior, junior, freshman you can be a leader. Even if you’re a freshman, that’ll give you experience on the field so you can get used to it.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned from those veterans is that, “Every game someone has their head down. You have to be on to the next play. You go over and talk to them and get their head up because you never know who you’re going to need at the last minute of the game. They say whoever is down, always get them back up and when you go to practice come with energy and be excited to practice and it will go good.”

Marcus Jones is a different animal. One of the most hyper-intelligent football players around, he is still an old-school, pure football player, at heart.

“There are a lot of the schemes and everything but what it really boils down to is, if you’re going to play, you have to have the mindset to beat the guy in front of you and go hard every play.”

His motivation comes from within, spurned by teams that must now live without his abilities.

“It started off with people telling me I’m too small and all I wanted to do was prove them wrong,” he emphasized.

For many, it would be easy to fall into the comfort of complacency, but that’s not Marcus Jones’ style. He simply wasn’t raised that way.

“People tell me everyday that I’m this or that and I say thank you, but I’m not that type of person to say I do this or that. My mom taught me that when I was young -- both of my parents did. I just keep working every day, and I’m on to the next.”

From a military household, Jones’ modesty is in his genes.

“My dad isn’t the one to harp on me and say do this or that,” he explained, “but he taught me that being humble will get you a long way in life. I feel like that’s helped me out today. He taught me right from wrong, to trust the process, have fun and just do you. Prove people wrong.”

His on-field play, contrarily, is far from the diffidence he portrays. He bounced around the country, in his youth. Now, he bounces around would-be tacklers, en route to points. He was considered too small to play at the major programs, out of high school. Now, he’s made a name for himself as one of the premier big play defenders in the nation.

Marcus Jones’ mother and father taught him better than to say that he’s one of the sport’s brightest rising stars.

The truth of the matter, though, from transient to transcendent, is that he is just that.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP