By Ed McGranahan.
Kellen Jones’ smile veils a 6-foot-1, 223-pound smoldering cauldron stoked by the memories of being told he was too slow and too fat.
It hardly seems plausible now that as a fourth- and fifth- grader in Houston, Tex., he was bullied for being an overweight nerd, because Jones just might emerge as the best linebacker at Clemson in a decade.
“You’ve got to be a little violent to play linebacker,” Jones said recently, “You’ve got to have a little edge.”
Discovering his edge or his place did not come without setbacks.
Jones transferred to Clemson last year from Oklahoma where in 2011 he played immediately, primarily on special teams. Originally recruited by Rich Rodriguez and signed by Michigan, his scholarship was voided when he was dismissed from summer school over a conflict with another player.
“It was an unfortunate circumstance,” said Jones’ father, Sean Jones, a native of Chicago and lifelong fan of the Maize and Blue. Though the Sooners hadn’t been on the radar initially, father and son liked the defensive coordinator, Brent Venables.
“Brent is a great guy and a straight shooter,” said Sean, a former linebacker himself at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Venables, the elder Jones said, was “the only reason” his son enrolled at Oklahoma. “He was there, but he was not happy. We have a term for it around here. We call it the Michigan Blues.”
Kellen was still in the grips of the Michigan Blues when Venables left Oklahoma last year for Clemson. He called his father and said, “I gotta go.”
Like many fathers, Sean imbued his son with a passion for football. He recalled an occasion when he and five-year old Kellen were watching the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Monday night.
“I fell asleep with him sitting on my stomach. An hour and a half later I woke up and he was sitting in the same place, eyes wide open,” he said. “I’m thinking what a terrible father I am, falling asleep and leaving this kid by himself.
“But he loved football. He would talk about it all the time. My family wondered if he needed to be doing something else. I’d say, he’s got good grades, he’s not in trouble and it’s what he’s interested in.”
Kellen also liked school.
“He’s a smart kid. He’s always been an honors student,” Sean said. “He was a nerd who was really athletic. He didn’t know where to fit in sometimes, with the jocks or the nerds. He was kind of caught between them.
“Fourth and fifth grade were kind of tough. He was kind of chubby and not street wise because his mom and I sheltered him a great deal. He was actually bullied and picked on. It kind of put a chip on his shoulder.”
His father did not permit him to play organized football until the sixth grade. His mother had also been an athlete and her father played football and baseball, so when Sean began working with his son, the athleticism emerged.
“I bounced him around a little bit,” Sean said. “I told him, life is tough, you gotta be tough. You gotta have a tough mentality. When he put the pads on it kind of evened things out.”
Over the next year Kellen began to grow, and by seventh grade the bullying stopped. “When he got some confidence it was about proving people wrong who said he couldn’t play,” Sean said.
Sean figured he was training a potential linebacker until, after meeting all-pro defensive end Dwight Freeney in Chicago at a family picnic, Kellen announced he would be a defensive end, too.
Realizing his son probably would not be any taller than Freeney at 6-foot-1, Sean encouraged Kellen to switch to linebacker. His son was adamant.
“You’ve got to be honest with yourself,” Sean told him. “You have to change positions.”
The switch became permanent for his junior season at St. Pius X High School in Houston, and it was an epiphany for them both.
“I remember thinking, wow, he can dominate a game,” Sean said. Beyond the parental pride he truly did not know how good his son could be. “It’s your child, but at the same time you have to take a step back and say what do I really have here?”
Sean asked a friend, former Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, to evaluate Kellen. Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, was coaching at another school in Houston.
Quite simply, Ward reported, “Kellen can play.” He sent the film to several colleges for further evaluation and they all came back asking to speak to the young man.
“I said, son, it looks like you’re a pretty good football player. His response was ‘I knew that.’”
When it came time to choose another school, Sean remembered that while watching games on Saturdays they occasionally saw Clemson. Kellen noted that Dabo Swinney seemed to make the game fun for his players.
“There was a boyish enthusiasm,” Sean recalled. “Kellen said at the time, ‘he looks like a great guy to play for.’”
When Venables left Oklahoma for Clemson, it seemed reasonable to visit.
The Jones wanted a place for their son that was “a great, perfect fit,” athletically, academically and socially.” Before Michigan they had visited Purdue, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado and Georgia Tech.
“We weren’t in favor of a football factory,” Sean said. “The combination of Coach V being there and believing in his talent, Coach Swinney’s emphasis on academics … some schools like to say it’s a family environment. It’s a lie at a lot of places.
“It was a completely wholesome and different environment (at Clemson). That visit was our best visit.”
As a member of the scout team last fall, Kellen briefly returned to end but as spring practice began it was linebacker again, principally on the weak side, even though he had played in the middle most of the time.
Kellen isn’t going to quibble. “I’d rather be an every down linebacker. If I can play every position, I can be on the field on every down.”
Sean is eager to see his son in the spring game. He and his wife will be joined by family and friends from the Atlanta area next Saturday to see that smoldering cauldron with the motor running wide open.
Venables described Kellen this spring as a stick of dynamite.
“Ask him what’s the first rule on the football field?” his father said. “You never walk on the football field.”
It’s not about being angry, just motivated.
“It’s really being told, you’re not tall enough, you’re not fast enough, you’re not going to be as good as you think.”