December 17, 2013 10:35:09 AM
STARKVILLE -- Without the proper perspective, one would think the freshman season for Chris Jones was ending the same way it started.
On a cold Sunday evening on the Mississippi State football team's practice field , Jones was doing punishment runs for what he called "loafing during the practice," but his production and his attitude toward the coaching has improved since the beginning of the season.
It has improved so much that multiple publications named the former five-star prospect from Houston a first-team All-Southeastern Conference freshman following a regular season that included 31 tackles and three sacks.
"It's just all part of the game and part of being a college football player with high expectations," Jones said. "I still love my coaches and love being here always even when I'm doing punishment runs."
Jones dominate the interior line at defensive tackle in the last month. His goal in the next two weeks is continue to apply his big-picture view to the rest of the team.
"We're all trying to benefit each other on every play because that's really the purpose of practice," Jones said. "I'm trying to get better, and if what I'm doing is lifting the offense's game, then wouldn't that make us a better team? Sure it would."
The 19-year-old, 305-pound Jones had sacks and tackles for loss in two of the last three games of the season when MSU (6-6) was trying to become bowl eligible for the fourth-consecutive year. Jones has a team-high 10 quarterback hurries and seven tackles for lost yardage. He had his eighth quarterback hurry in Southeastern Conference action against Ole Miss, the most by a MSU player in league action in the Dan Mullen era. Jones will try to add to that total at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31, when MSU (6-6) faces Rice (10-3) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn. ESPN will broadcast the game.
"A lot of people are congratulating me on that (All-SEC freshman) honor or the honor of being honorable mention All-SEC, but I'm not really accepting that," Jones said. "Not to be rude, but I don't think feel like I accomplished my goals, so I need to work harder to produce more. Honorable mention isn't acceptable."
MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins recognizes Jones' impact on the team. He said that's why in the preseason he had Jones working against the third-team offensive line, which was made up mostly of freshmen who were being redshirted. Collins has called Jones "the Megatron of the defense in Starkville," but it is only recently that Collins has started to rely on Jones to be a leader for the other young players who haven't seen the field much in their first seasons. Megatron is the nickname of Calvin Johnson, a wide receiver for the NFL's Detroit Lions.
"I was just thinking about it yesterday that I was in that Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game last year and now I'm playing major snaps on a SEC defensive line, so yeah, time flies man," Jones said. "The college experience is what I expected, but everything is different. You got to be on your p's and q's in college, and that's so good for me."
Jones worked Sunday at defensive end, a position he has been begging to play, because the MSU coaches anticipate more depth to be available at the interior defensive lineman position. Jones was on the same line as Nick James, who is being redshirted in his second season due to physical and academic limitations.
"He made the commitment himself to get with (MSU strength and conditioning coach) Matt Balis and did the work on his own," MSU defensive line coach David Turner said. "Nick has done what we asked him to do and every day is maturing more and more. He's still got a long way to go though."
James, a former four-star prospect from Long Beach, looked slimmer than he did in fall camp and more energized throughout individual and team seven-on-seven drills as he hopes to return in 2014.
"How about Nick James being able to only go two or three plays earlier this season and then being done, but look at him now," Collins said. "He went through a 60-play scrimmage situation and was physically fine afterward tonight."
Jones can't help but look forward to being part of the defensive line next season. Preparation for the bowl game is giving MSU a sneak preview of what that defense could do.
"We got Nick and others coming back to dominate, and I think we're going to have one of the better units in the conference," Jones said. "Then, of course, I'm moving back to end, so that'll be great, too. Hopefully I don't have to run more for saying that, but I've been waiting on that for so long."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.