It hasn’t taken the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie linebacker long to do the same in the NFL.
If Jones isn’t recovering a fumble in his first preseason game, he’s ripping the ball teammates in practice, batting down a pass in coverage, or even contorting his body to pick off two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger.
And his teammates have taken notice.
“He’s a great player,” Steelers’ linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “He has it all and once he puts it all together, he’ll be a problem.”
Jones’ raw talent and athleticism has been on display for two weeks during training camp practices at St. Vincent College, and that’s good news for the Steelers, who are looking to fill the void at outside linebacker left by the departed James Harrison.
Jason Worilds has taken first-team snaps throughout training camp and started the Steelers’ first preseason game Saturday, an 18-13 home loss against the New York Giants.
But Jones has the ability to potentially unseat the fourth-year pro if he continues at this pace.
Jones was quick to attack Saturday when Giants’ quarterback David Carr and running back Andre Brown botched a second-quarter handoff. Jones admitted it wasn’t a designed rush, but he still came away with the football.
“Once I saw the hand-off, I took off,” Jones said. “He kind of bobbled it, so I went straight toward him.”
It wasn’t the only heads-up play Jones made that night.
The rookie blew up a well-designed tight end screen late in the third quarter, alertly snuffing out a short throw-back pass by quarterback Curtis Painter before shrugging off a block from a lineman to come up with a one-handled tackle on Larry Donnell.
“I was man-to-man with (Donnell), and I kind of backed off a little bit, looking at the other side of the field to see where the quarterback was,” Jones said. “Some linemen came toward me, I kind of read it, and came up with a shoe-string tackle. I should’ve been tighter on him, but I took a chance. It was one of those plays you get lucky with.”
Luck or not, Timmons was still impressed.
“If he didn’t make that play, I’m pretty sure their guy would still be running,” Timmons said.
Despite the solid debut, it was still a learning experience for the 17th overall pick in the draft. The player who led the nation with 14½ sacks last year at Georgia is relishing the opportunity to continue his progression and the new challenge of battling unfamiliar faces.
“Playing against your guys, you kind of know what their favorite moves are and what kind of techniques they use,” Jones said. “Playing against other guys, you have to think and pay attention to detail.
“I definitely have a lot to work and improve on.”
Rushing the passer is one of his top priorities. Jones was near the quarterback the entire night Saturday, but couldn’t come up with a sack.
Jones, who said he used a speed rush most of the game, worked on new ways to reach the quarterback Monday at St. Vincent College, even busting out a spin move during one-on-one pass rush drills.
His most impressive moment Monday came when he ripped the ball from the hands of LaRod Stephens-Howling during a run play and emerged from the line with possession. It wasn’t the first time Jones has blown up a place in camp. Last week he got his hands on a Roethlisberger pass at the line of scrimmage and dove backward while the ball was in the air, twisting his body to come up with the interception.
“When we’re going against our offense, he’s looking good, dropping back in coverage, rushing the quarterback,” Steelers’ linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “He’s definitely getting there.”
The adjustment period is steep in the NFL and the rookie realizes as much, despite early success. But Jones is already on the right path. A path that should provide continued success as long as it leads to the football.
“I’m doing a great job, but at the same time I’m a rookie,” Jones said. “There’s going to be a learning curve and I’m going to make some errors. I’m doing a good job of taking the process slow and learning.”