Chris Jones keeps both eyes locked on the road and on the prize these days, glancing only occasionally into the rear-view mirror. With one exception.
“I’m excited,” the former Nebraska cornerback says of new Cornhuskers football coach Scott Frost. “I’m excited to see what he does, especially for that program. I really, honestly believe Scott Frost is going to turn that whole school around.”
Speaking of turnarounds …
“It’s a lot better. I’m moving well now,” Jones said of his left meniscus, the one that went haywire on him last July, a freak tear that spoiled what was supposed to be a shutdown senior season before it started.
“I think I move more fluidly. I feel like I’ve got more of the quick twitch that I had in my junior year. My speed has gone up, it’s increased. I just feel great.”
He looked pretty great last Saturday, too, all things considered. The star-crossed Huskers speedster racked up 2 tackles for the victorious National side at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., helping a defense that forced 5 turnovers and pitched a 23-0 shutout.
— Chris Jones (@Joneschosen1) January 21, 2018
“Every day was a learning experience,” says the Florida native, whose solo stop of former Hawaii tailback Diocemy Saint Juste for no gain ended the third quarter with authority. “Each practice [I had] something different I learned that was new.
“In the game, I had a moment where I should have had a pick of the ball off a Cover-2 and it tipped off my hands. I got a tackle for a loss [on Saint Juste] toward the end of the game. That was one of the things I was told by the scouts was one of my weaknesses, was tackling, so I needed to come and make a tackle in the open field. That was a great feeling.”
Every day is about getting that feeling back, catching up for the lost time, lost snaps, lost momentum.
Last January, Nebraska fans were heaving a collective sigh of relief that Jones had elected to return for his senior season after a stellar junior campaign — he was as an honorable mention All-Big Ten cornerback after recording 3 interceptions and 10 pass break-ups and was named to Pro Football Focus’ early-season All-America team. As a sophomore in 2015, he’d tallied 5 pass breakups and a pair of picks, an autumn that put him on the radar of most pro scouts.
“I went out there [at the NFLPA game] with the mindset to show, ‘He’s OK,’ that the injury, that’s past, that’s behind me,” said Jones, whose knee surgery limited him to just 7 contests this past fall, which was 7 more than some doctors had anticipated.
“And I feel like I’m probably freer than the Chris Jones of my junior year. I’m a lot smarter toward the game. I move a lot better than I did my junior year. I wanted to go out there and prove that my injury didn’t affect me in any kind of way.”
‘It was a test of faith’
Jones says he’s pushing the 4.4s in the all-important 40-yard dash this winter, down a few ticks from the 4.5-ish he’d recorded two falls ago, before knee surgery tossed his football plans into the blender. For the last month or so, he’s been shaving off hundredths of seconds at Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas, along with old Big Red running mates Josh Kalu and De’Mornay Pierson-El.
The Senior Bowl this week is loaded with the cream of the can’t-miss; the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl is a showcase for guys from small schools, guys with question marks, guys with points to prove.
NFLDraftScout.com lists Jones among the fringes of its top 60 cornerback prospects, which history says is a third day/free-agent landing spot come springtime. But the NFL also loves size — and given that Jones brings a chiseled 6-foot frame and 195 pounds of jackhammer to the party, size ain’t the issue.
The knee is.
— Chris Jones (@Joneschosen1) January 18, 2018
“I’d caught myself trying to stop and I was going to hop up onto this little concrete thing and hopped up there so I wouldn’t run [into] it,” Jones says of the summer 2017 injury.
“I put my foot down and felt [it] right on the back of my leg — right on top of my knee, I felt it. It felt kind of odd when I got up. I started running again and didn’t really think much about it.”
Next morning? Different story.
“My knee was swelling,” Jones recalls. “It wasn’t right.”
It was all kinds of wrong, something an MRI swiftly confirmed. The initial prognosis was four-to-six months of healing and rehab.
Dude was back on the field after three.
“It was a test of faith,” Jones says. “Going through all that put me on a swivel … you think everything is going to be great, and then something like that happens.
“Some people ask, ‘Why me?’ I didn’t look at it like that. I looked at it as, ‘God has a plan for everything.’ Maybe if I would’ve played [earlier], it would have been worse than a meniscus. I could have torn my ACL. I just thank God that it wasn’t worse and I made it back quicker than everybody else thought.
“Scouts and people who say I came back too fast — I came back when I was ready. I prayed about it. I felt myself I was ready to come back, regardless. I felt like I was back and felt I was ready. And I think I felt like God was preparing me for something greater than that. When I came back, the games were up and down as far as my play. But it was just preparing me for what was about to take place.”
‘You want to be out there so much, it hurts’
Eyes forward, free of pain, Jones is in Texas preparing for Nebraska’s pro day. Smoothing over the rough edges. Embracing the grind, one blessed rep at a time.
🙏🏾🙏🏾🙏🏾 I’m blessed, God will make my name great dnt believe the hype https://t.co/Txh0kAnAJn
— Chris Jones (@Joneschosen1) January 4, 2018
“I keep training my body, telling my mind I want to run a 4.3,” he says. “That’s everybody’s goal, to run well.
“But there are a lot of things that go into the training — you’ve got your start, you’ve got your splits. For me, I’m working on those things while I’m training and hopefully, when the time comes, I’ll run that 4.3. But if I don’t run a 4.3, I’m happy with whatever time I get.”
The moments of doubt — doubting the knee, doubting the future, doubting the plan — have been replaced by moments of zen. This past week, Jones caught the eye of National team cornerbacks coach Dre Bly, who’d played the same position in the NFL, and dang well, from 1999 to 2009.
“The point that he made to me [was], ‘Control what you can control and anything you can’t control, you can’t control,’ ” Jones recalls. “I couldn’t control an injury in this game. In this game, you’re going to get hurt doing what you’re doing. That’s what comes with the territory. You’ve got to embrace things like that.
“Nobody want to get hurt playing this game, but that’s taking away from the love of this game. You love it so much and you want to be out there so much, it hurts.”