AMES — It’s often an afterthought.
When one thinks of defensive football players, the term “nickel” doesn’t usually spring to mind.
Jay Jones aims to change that. Hint: He’ll debut at nickel for Iowa State this fall — and likely as a starter, to boot.
“You have to make an impact, make plays,” said Jones, who committed to the Cyclones in January and enrolled in classes almost immediately. “I think that’s it. If you make plays, make an impact, I think people will notice the nickel position much more.”
Coaches have certainly noticed Jones. He’s been one of the most referenced players on what looks to be a thoroughly revamped defense in 2015.
He’s long and lean (6-3, 209). He’s quick. His cover skills are strong and his hits, well, they produce the appropriate sounds.
“Everything,” Jones, a junior from Georgia Military College, said when asked to describe his game. “I believe I can do everything — I try to work on everything. But I can cover. I’d say I can hit, too. I’m not going to be the Jordan Harris and break your face mask, but I can hit you.”
Harris, a pad-popping MIKE linebacker, offered a similar appraisal, but added a little extra zest.
“He’s just like a bigger guy on small receivers with his size, but when he has to hit, he will,” Harris said. “And he’ll bring it.”
Jones was forced to leave behind his first stab at a Division I career. He committed to North Carolina State in 2012 and briefly saw play on special teams. But his attention to detail waned — and he offered an example:
Say a 3 p.m. meeting had been called. Jones would leave at 2:40 or even 2:50. Time management, he said, was not a strong suit.
“Just pushing it the limit and I put myself in the predicament to go junior college,” Jones said. “That was the reason why: not being disciplined.”
His time at Georgia Military College changed that.
“He needed to grow up,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. “He needed to mature and he was smart enough to understand and recognize that and put himself in that position and he’s benefited from that, but he was intentional in benefiting from it and right now we’re the recipient of where it took him.”
Jones emerged from the barracks primed for a second chance. He committed to the Cyclones two days into a planned three-day visit that coincided with the men’s basketball team’s regular-season win over Kansas. He flew back to Georgia on Saturday, packed, and returned to Ames on Sunday.
“The preparation was already there,” Jones said. “When I came here, I knew what to expect and how to just be a good teammate, and be a good player, student first. I just knew, kind of, because of the N.C. State experience.”
Rhoads called Jones a prototypical recruit at the nickel position because of his mix of size, speed and strength. Jones called Rhoads a straight shooter, who, along with defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist, made Iowa State seem like the best site to begin his personal reclamation project.
“I believe my first go-around I took it for granted,” Jones said. “And now I appreciate it much more. After I had it taken away from me, I understand that it can be here and gone tomorrow. This experience right here, I’m definitely trying to take full advantage of it.”
*** Rhoads said the defense shined in Wednesday’s scrimmage and it’s no coincidence that the offense showed up a bit better on Saturday.
"If you were going to give a win or loss to the scrimmage, it would go to the defense today," Rhoads said, while noting the offense performed well, too. "Often works that way. When they left the field on Saturday, coach Wally (Burnham) was with them for an extended period of time to give them his opinion on how they scrimmaged and he wasn’t going to allow that to happen, but more important, the kids weren’t going to allow that to happen today. Defense was really aggressive, flying around, physical. Tackled extremely well for the second scrimmage, which is positive to see."
Linebacker Levi Peters said Burnham’s words — and the uneven play that prompted them — stuck with him that night and set the stage for Wednesday’s resurgence.
"I couldn’t sleep very well Saturday night and hopefully a lot of the guys on the defense couldn’t either," Peters said. "But before the scrimmage I kind of said something about that to the guys and they responded well. And our whole defense responded well to that, because they kind of brought it to us last Saturday and I think today the roles were reversed a little bit. I think the defense came out with a lot of fire and that’s what we’re going to need every day this season.”
*** Another player we’ve hard a lot about in the spring and fall is Reggan Northrup. The 6-1,191-pound redshirt freshman is also a nickel back and along with Jones continues to turn heads.
"That’s a great talent,” Jones said of Northrup. “He’s young and fiery. He’s pushing me every day. I can’t (have) off days, or come with a lackadaisical attitude, because he’s pushing me every day.”
*** Peters, a skilled sportsman (among other interesting things), shared a very, very big fish story from his recent past. Before camp, he went down to Florida to visit his mom. He also cast his line into the sea and what he hooked … well, let him tell it:
"It makes me mad still," the hard-hitting, Harley-riding former walk-on from Gilmore City began. "I had a Goliath grouper hooked four times and I lost him below the boat. Four times. The hook popped once and the line snapped three other times. So next time I go back to see my mom, we’re definitely going to go after that baby again."
He would have had to release it back to the Atlantic, of course, but the experience won’t be forgotten (and likely will be re-lived, because that’s how Peters rolls).
"I fought it for like seven minutes and maybe it wasn’t even that long," Peters said. "That thing was — they said it was probably a 300-pound fish, so it was fun.”