By David Brandt
AP Sports Writer
STARKVILLE – As a freshman, Chris Jones was arguably Mississippi State’s best defensive football player.
The scary part for opponents is he didn’t really know what he was doing.
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle from nearby Houston used his sheer talent to finish with 32 tackles, including seven tackles for a loss, three sacks and a team-high 10 quarterback hurries last fall.
Now he’s refining his technique and continuing to learn the playbook this spring as the Bulldogs prepare for the Maroon-White game on Saturday.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen hopes Jones’ continued development can turn him into one of the most feared defensive linemen in the Southeastern Conference.
“He’s got freaky talent,” Mullen said. “But there are a lot of people out there who have had freaky talent and did nothing with it.”
The Bulldogs return nine starters on defense from a team that finished with a 7-6 record last fall. Jones received almost all of the first-team snaps at defensive tackle this spring because of injuries to seniors Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones.
Jones, the Daily Journal’s 2012 Defensive Player of the Year at Houston High School, came to Mississippi State expecting to play defensive end, but it was quickly apparent that his body was better suited at tackle. He carries 300 pounds easily and has the strength to fight off double teams while still possessing enough speed to get to the quarterback.
“Every time you’re at tackle, you’re going to get two people on you,” Jones said. “Somebody’s going to hit you. You’re going to feel some pain.”
Learning the tricks
As Jones continues to develop, he’s dishing out some pain of his own, learning how leverage and positioning can make life easier when trying to control some of the most valuable real estate on the field.
He continued to dominate even after a thumb injury midway through spring left his left hand and wrist heavily taped. Mullen said he was impressed how Jones didn’t let the pain affect his play.
“He got banged up and learned to play with an injury,” Mullen said. “That’s important – you forget he’s still a young player still learning how to play through not feeling 100 percent. I think he did a great job with that.”
Jones’ development is one of the key issues for a Mississippi State team that hopes to push into the top of the SEC’s difficult Western Division. The Bulldogs won their final three games last season, including the Liberty Bowl over Rice, and return quarterback Dak Prescott, who threw for 1,940 yards and rushed for 829 yards as a sophomore.
Six of the Bulldogs’ top seven receivers also return, along with three offensive linemen.
That’s led to some intense competition during spring drills. During Thursday’s practice, Mullen had to intervene in several minor skirmishes.
“It got physical and it got a little chippy,” Mullen said. “I don’t mind that at all as long as the focus is on doing our job. Don’t let chippy become the focus. Let chippy help us play at a higher level.”
And Jones was right in the middle of all of it, trying to establish himself as one of the Bulldogs’ elite defensive players. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney said Jones is often double-teamed because he’s so disruptive, leaving space for others to make plays.
“He’s a great player now as a young guy,” McKinney said. “If he just stays in the playbook he’ll be fine. There’s no telling how good he can be.”