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February 19, 2008

A gamble on EMU's Jones could pay off

FRANKLIN, Tenn. The Miami Dolphins took a chance on a former basketball player from a Mid-American Conference school 11 years ago and hit the jackpot when Akron's Jason Taylor developed into one of the NFL's top pass rushers.

Eastern Michigan defensive lineman Jason Jones would love to reward a team for making a similar gamble.

"I haven't heard those types of comparisons yet, but I know he came from the MAC and was very successful," Jones said during a break from preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine at the D1 Sports Training Center in suburban Nashville. "That's where I want to be. I want to be a successful pass rusher and be in the league for at least eight or nine years."

He's certainly off to a nice start.

JASON JONES FILE

Name: Jason Jones
Position: Defensive end
Height: 6 feet 5
Weight: 272 pounds
College: Eastern Michigan
High school: Southfield-Lathrup in Lathrup Village, Mich.
Agents: Mike McCartney, Mark Bartelstein and Rick Smith of Priority Sports and Entertainment.
Fact: Jones played tight end and safety in high school and began his college career at tight end. He primarily has played defensive tackle while also spending some time at end the past three seasons.
Rivals.com projection: Second or third round.
Jones fared well enough at Senior Bowl workouts to emerge as a potential second-round pick despite coming from a MAC school that was 13-33 in his four seasons. He could solidify that status this week with a big performance at the Combine.

Not bad for someone who previously didn't even consider football his favorite sport.

"I thought I was going to be a basketball player," Jones said.

Jones never actually played basketball at Eastern Michigan, but he was an all-state performer in high school after averaging 24 points, 15 rebounds and five assists as a senior at Southfield-Lathrup High in Lathrup Village, Mich.

He started playing football only after Southfield-Lathrup High coach Stephon Thompson talked him into it. Jones soon learned that his status as a 6-foot-4 forward (he gained an inch after graduating from high school) made him much more suited for football than basketball, though Thompson believed his prize pupil could have succeeded at either sport.

"That kid could have played college basketball with no problem,'' Thompson said. "The guy was a freak. He was tomahawking the rim, jumping over people when he was dunking. It wasn't like he had to have a clear path."

Jones' athleticism has helped him to adjust to a variety of position switches. The former 219-pound tight end and safety in high school remained at tight end for one season at Eastern Michigan before moving to the defensive line. He bulked up to 270 pounds and developed into a standout defensive tackle who recorded 38 tackles for loss over his final two college seasons.

"When that ball moves, he's moving," Eastern Michigan coach Jeff Genyk said. "He's usually the first guy to move off the snap. He's extremely athletic and has a very good burst once he's by the lineman to get to the quarterback. And he's got an extremely long arm span that allows him to make plays he normally wouldn't. He's able to run down running backs and receivers when they break free for long gains."

But even as he dominated MAC offensive lines, Jones remained a bit smaller than most defensive tackles across the nation. After finishing his college career, Jones still had to answer questions about his perceived lack of size and about his school's lack of recognition.

The gravity of the situation became apparent last month when Jones arrived for Senior Bowl week and heard questions about what the "E" on his helmet stood for because people didn't realize what school he attended.

"That was kind of a surprise to me, that they didn't even know what the 'E' meant," Jones said. "It was kind of a chip on my shoulder. I didn't want to come in there and be another small-school guy who didn't do anything. I wanted to make a name for myself."

That's exactly what he did. Jones spent most of the week working out at defensive end the position he most likely will play in the NFL and continually won one-on-one matchups with better-known players from more recognizable programs. He capped the week by forcing a fumble and recording a sack in the Senior Bowl game.

"I like him an awful lot," said Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com, who rates Jones as the No. 60 overall prospect in the draft class. "I think he's a kid who will be in that second tier of defensive ends. We're going to have at least four or five go in the first round, and maybe 10 in the top 75. I think he's in the back end of that 10."

Jones' surge up the draft boards doesn't surprise his high school coach. Thompson has worked with NFL talent before, as his list of former players includes Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote and Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman Maurice Williams. He believes Jones can enjoy similar success at the next level.

"Jason's right up there with them," Thompson said. "You knew whatever he decided to do, he was going to be good at it with his talent. No question about it. And he has the type of demeanor that he really loves the game. He's a really good person. It seems like those types of kids go a long way. Not everybody has that type of personality."

Jones has learned to appreciate football so much that he no longer has any second thoughts about giving up his first love. Although he remains a big basketball fan, he had to think for a while before recalling the last time he'd actually played the game.

"I haven't picked up a ball in so long," Jones said. "I had a pickup game probably my sophomore year in college, so it's been a while."

If NFL scouts have their way, it could be quite a bit longer before Jones plays basketball again.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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