Mike Jones Jr. is having more fun practicing with Clemson right now than he ever has.
That’s because after redshirting during the 2018 season and then backing up Isaiah Simmons in 2019, Jones has been getting most of the starting reps at the strong-side linebacker position since the Tigers began spring practice on Feb. 26.
The Nashville, Tenn., native and IMG (Fla.) Academy product is starting to see all the work he has put in over the past two years pay off.
“I have had to develop a lot of patience, but it’s good,” Jones said on Friday. “Once you get to what you’ve been patient for, it feels so much better. This has been my favorite six practice since I’ve been in college. So, I’ve enjoyed it.”
Jones, a redshirt sophomore, has taken advantages of his opportunities so far this spring and drew praise following Friday’s practice from Clemson’s head coach.
“Mike Jones is probably one of the bright spots of camp,” Dabo Swinney said. “Just looks different in every area. Just the way he moves, his confidence, his awareness. He’s playing really fast. He’s where he’s supposed to be. His anticipation of everything … He’s a big-time thumbs up guy. Stock is way up on him. He’s really done a nice job.”
Jones is taking on the tall task of replacing Simmons, a unanimous All-American and Butkus Award winner in 2019 who served as Clemson’s starter at nickel/SAM for the last two seasons.
While Jones knows he has some big shoes to fill, he is doing his best not to dwell on that but rather stay locked in on himself and what he needs to do to improve.
“You know, you try not to think about it,” he said. “That’s probably what I do the best. Just focusing on myself and being the best I can be every day and trying to get better every day. That’s really the main thing I do.”
It won’t be easy to fill the void left by Simmons, but Jones is confident and feels prepared for what lies ahead – thanks in part to what Simmons taught him while they were teammates.
“I learned a lot from Zay, from just being calm and composed and just trusting your preparation and just believing in yourself on the field,” Jones said. “Zay is a freakish talent, but through the teaching, just being around him, I feel like I’m a freak just like him. So, just really playing confident, believing in yourself, working hard and just letting it all transfer to the field. I’d say that’s what I learned the most from him.”
The No. 10 outside linebacker by ESPN and an Under Armour All-American coming out of IMG Academy, Jones enters the 2020 season with 22 career tackles (4.0 for loss), a forced fumble and a pass breakup in 196 snaps over 18 career games.
Jones is using this spring practice to work on a couple of things in particular.
“The biggest thing I would say for me this spring is developing more knowledge for the game,” he said, “and also my man coverage and just being sharper and moving better all over the field.”
Jones is a different player than Simmons and trusts defensive coordinator Brent Venables to change some things up at his position in order to put him in the best position to be successful.
“Zay, he’s a more long, rangy guy. Definitely would say he’s better playing against deep balls, little slot receivers, stuff like that,” Jones said. “So, it’s just changing little tweaks into our coverages and stuff like that. Instead of maybe pressing a number two receiver, I’ll play 7 yards off and get more of a backpedal. Just playing around with leverages and stuff like that and just putting ourselves in a competitive position even though I’m not a 6-5, 4.3 (40-yard dash) guy like Zay.”
By the time the 2020 season rolls around in September, Jones believes he and the Tigers’ defense will be ready to play up to the level of last year’s unit that ranked No. 3 in scoring defense (13.5 points per game allowed) and sixth in total defense (288.3 yards per game allowed).
“We don’t want any drop-off,” Jones said. “Like I said, (Simmons) was a freakish guy, great player – I hope he goes No. 1 in the draft. But I believe in myself, I believe in Coach V putting us in a good situation. We’re learning, getting better as a defense. It’s bigger than one dude, us as a defense as total. We’re going to be ready when it’s time to be ready, so I don’t expect any drop-off.”
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