Mike Jones Jr.’s first play on defense for Clemson in the game against South Carolina last Saturday was a memorable one for the redshirt freshman linebacker.
On fourth-and-2 from South Carolina’s 33-yard line in the fourth quarter, Jones broke up a pass from Ryan Hilinski to Shi Smith and forced a turnover on downs.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables believes that play is big for the confidence of Jones moving forward.
“Mike works hard,” Venables said. “I coach Mike really, really hard because I know what’s in the future. He’s a talented young guy that has a chance to be a really good player. I coach him hard, and to see him get out there and make a really good play against one of their best players … He looks over to the sideline, ‘What do I do?’ I’m like, ‘You’ve been in this moment in practice a million times.’ So we had some communication and things like that, and to see him make a play, that will do a lot for him and amazing how one play can do that. But that was fun to see.”
Jones has been on the field for 173 snaps across 12 games this season, tallying 18 total tackles, four tackles for loss, four quarterback pressures and a forced fumble while serving as the backup to Isaiah Simmons at the strongside linebacker/nickelback position.
As he bides his time behind Simmons, Jones is staying patient and waiting for more opportunities to show what he can do.
“It hasn’t really been that hard for me. I just love being around the game,” Jones said. “I enjoy practice. Practice is a lot of my game reps. And I know it’s just all part of the plan. I don’t really worry about it. When I get my chance to go out there, you try to make your plays while you can. But other than that, I love watching Zay play. I try to emulate what he does. So, everything is just an opportunity to learn and just to have fun and go play.”
Jones looks to veteran linebackers Chad Smith and James Skalski as encouraging examples of guys who have stuck it out and are now seeing the fruits of their labor after playing smaller roles over the past few seasons.
“That’s just kind of how it is, I feel like. That’s the college way,” Jones said. “It’s not really too often, especially linebackers, who just jump into it and then you’re great. It takes years of hard work and patience and just grinding and straining yourself. So, those guys are the image that I’m seeing. When you go through every day, when it gets tough, you look at those guys and be like, they did it too, it’s OK, keep working and it’s all going to work out.”
A former four-star prospect and All-American at IMG Academy, Jones says Clemson has been everything he expected since he enrolled at the school in January 2018.
“I fully submerged into what I thought I was coming into whenever I was a recruit,” he said. “I feel like I have the best teammates in the country. I love all my guys on my team. Coach V and the whole staff, they’re exactly who they showed me who they were during the recruitment process. So, even not being on the field as much as one would come into college thinking, I’ve had a great time. I love it. I’m here with my best friends almost every day of the year, and it’s all for like a bigger purpose too. So, it’s all good when you get to have fun doing what you enjoy.”
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