Josh Jones prepared for hybrid safety role

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY – By almost anyone else’s standards, this football sin was forgivable. No position in college football is more unfortunate than the open field against Lamar Jackson. The Louisville quarterback is a Heisman Trophy winner, a one-man highlight reel, able to house it from 70 yards at any moment.

North Carolina State safety Josh Jones waits before a drill at the 2017 NFL scouting combine.

Josh Jones? He was in the open field. All alone.

This was the first October Saturday of 2015. North Carolina State hosted Louisville in its ACC opener. In the first quarter, Jackson took off around the right end, no containment to be found. He was full steam ahead, eight yards past the line of scrimmage, when Jones stepped into the ring. Face to face with Jackson, he was the only one standing between him and the end zone.

And he missed. Sideswiped.

Jones was the matador, Jackson the bull.

“He could overrun the ball at times,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said of his safety’s struggles throughout 2015. “Maybe get out of control.”

The missed tackle highlighted a sophomore season from hell. Jones’ play on the field didn’t meet anyone’s standards. Because he wasn’t just anyone else.

Eighteen months ago, he looked like an NFL player. Cut from the stencil of a modern hybrid safety, Jones stands 6-foot-1, 220 pounds with a 4.40-second 40-yard dash. Blazing fast. His speed meant Jones often was the first tackler to the ball.

Too often, he overran the tackle.

Combine that with his tendency to bite on double moves in pass coverage, you have an aggressive player who played too aggressively. Too much of his strength became a weakness. Despite all those physical traits, the measurables that had pro scouts salivating, Jones did not play like an NFL player in 2015.

“I had a bad year,” Jones told the Raleigh News & Observer after the 2015 season.

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What happened next, Doeren said, explains how he went from there to here, arriving in town this week as a second-round draft pick, a rookie with a real chance of helping the Green Bay Packers' sluggish defense early in his career.

“He owned it,” Doeren said. “He went into the offseason program with a plan and wanted to commit himself to his teammates and to the coaches and to himself, and the process of getting better, and really eliminated things off the field that a lot of college kids have to deal with. He just really went into a football shell and took care of his business, which I was really proud of him for.

“A lot of guys don’t do that. If you don’t play the way you want to, a lot of times you just hope it gets better. Some guys actually look at everything they did wrong, they own every single part of it, and they sit down and figure out how they can get better at those things, and they do. That was what Josh did.”

It started in the film room.

Wolfpack practices are in the morning. Afternoons are spent on academics. From there, players are free to make their own schedule. Evenings are their time.

Jones spent every evening, Doeren said, scribbling in his notebook in the film room last offseason. He studied every mistake, every sideswiped tackle. He became, in Doeren’s words, a “real student of the game,” even digging into analytics many college players don’t bother with.

Doeren, the former Wisconsin defensive coordinator, said Jones wasn’t just a different player as a junior. He was a different person. The kid grew up.

“I’m not talking about partying and things like that,” Doeren said. “I’m just talking about what guys do with their free time. Some guys play video games, sometimes they sleep. Sometimes they just hang out. The really good players commit themselves in other ways. They spend extra time in the weight room, they spend extra time in the training room. They spend extra time with their coaches or in the video room. Josh did all those things.

“He was in our complex a ton watching extra film, working with our strength staff on flexibility and his craft. I think he just looked at his day and said, ‘OK, here’s the free time I have. I’m going to commit it to football and my body.’”

The results were immediate. With better angles and more control, Jones led the Wolfpack with 109 tackles as a junior — almost matching the total from his first two seasons. No longer biting on double moves, he intercepted three passes a year after only picking off one.

It’s a skill set the Packers want to put in the middle of their defense. His college position was safety, but the Packers will expect most of Jones’ snaps to come as a linebacker in their nickel and dime packages. Considering the Packers line up in those two defenses on more than 80 percent of their snaps, Jones has the chance to play a big role early.

Doeren doesn’t doubt Jones is ready. Not after seeing his transformation.

“He’s a superior athlete for a guy his size,” Doeren said, “but he also plays fast. Some guys are testing guys that don’t necessarily translate it to the film, but he plays fast. He can really trigger on a play once he diagnoses where he’s supposed to be through his progression. He can get to where he wants to be very quickly. I mean, he’s got incredible acceleration.

“Last year, he was more patient. He played his angles better. That’s the biggest thing to me a safety has to be able to do, is get that guy down if he does get through. That guy is called a safety for a reason. So I think that’s the one thing that if you watch the last year and this year, he was one of our better open-field tacklers.”

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