Familiar Balancing Act For Rookie Jones In His Battle for Roster Spot

OXNARD, Calif. - UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen recently made waves when he was quoted as saying, "football and school don't go together," meaning that the requirements of college football and being a student are like two full-time jobs. It's nearly impossible to do both well.

Meet Joe Jones.

"I have degrees in communication studies and economics with a minor in business."

Even more impressive, the Cowboys rookie linebacker earned these credentials at Northwestern University, which is annually ranked as one the nation's toughest academic institutions. He also held two jobs and helped out with a third at times during his tenure there.

And oh, by the way, he got married to his high school sweetheart, Amber, midway through college, and last season, as a fifth-year senior, he welcomed his baby daughter into the world, Scarlette.

"It wasn't easy, not at all," said Jones. "Especially as an Econ major and playing football. And then having a wife and having a child at the end, it was a lot. But we had a lot of help. For us, at Northwestern, the academic system and the tutor system we have, there was no way that we shouldn't graduate. It was impossible for us to fail, to be honest with you."

That intelligence and determination, though, is now helping Jones in his battle to make the Cowboys roster this season. Primarily an outside linebacker during his final year at Northwestern, he's moved to the middle spot in the Dallas scheme.

"I've been learning a whole new defense and getting acclimated to the situation," Jones said. "Before, I had two calls I made to my defensive end and that was about it. Now, being a MIKE and being in the box, I've got 50 different alignments for 10 different calls, and I have to make the calls for everybody."

Which, of course, has required a lot of studying, something that Jones is quite used to. When he's not out on the field or in meetings, you can find him buried in the playbook.

"My wife has helped me with (studying). And my roommates, Kennan Gilchrist and Darnell Leslie, have been helping me as well. We've all been working together."

If anyone knows what Jones has been through just to get to this point, it's Amber. He's actually known his wife longer than he's been playing football. The two first met each other in sixth grade in their hometown of Plano, Ill., a city of just more than 11,000 that's 30 minutes or so west of Aurora.

"We didn't start dating until the summer before my senior year of high school," said Jones with a smile. "She hated me, thought I was annoying, but I worked my way up the line. We became friends, then good friends and then obviously I wooed her at the end."

The toughest part of this whole summer for Jones has been being away from his family. Amber and Scarlette have remained in the Chicago area while he concentrates on earning a position with the Cowboys. They've met up here and there throughout the summer – Amber was on hand for Jones' NFL debut in the Hall of Fame Game – but their relationship over the last few weeks has been shared largely on FaceTime.

"It's FaceTime every day," he said. "Wake up in the morning at 7:00, FaceTime. Go to meetings, leave out of the first practice, FaceTime. Take my nap, come to practice, I'm going to FaceTime her now for a couple of minutes. The FaceTime is crucial."

Crucial, too, for Jones is becoming a Cowboy. His road to the NFL began in his eighth grade year of school when his mom basically forced him to try out for the team. To him, football was a "dumb sport" and he admits that when his family hosted Super Bowl parties, he would be down in the basement or in his bedroom playing video games.

That's not to say Jones didn't like sports. He played basketball and baseball – in fact, he worked at a baseball academy while in college – but he never had much interest in the gridiron.

But he and his mother, Shawn-Daria, made an agreement. She signed him up to play football, but the list was long. If the coaches didn't call him, he was off the hook. If they did, well …

"I went to visit my dad in Georgia," Jones remembered, "but she said, 'If they call, you're going to fly back.' I think I spent two or three days in Georgia when my mom called and said I had to come back."

There was likely never any doubt. Jones' baseball coach knew the kind of athlete he was and recommended him to the football coaches. Soon enough, he was out on the field in pads.

"And I loved it," Jones said. "I got to play running back. I got to use my speed and show my athleticism, so it was great."

As a senior at Plano High School, Jones went on to rush for 710 yards and earn 328 receiving yards while totaling 13 touchdowns overall in just eight games. He earned all-conference honors for his offensive prowess, but he also played safety, where he was rated a three-star prospect by Scout.com.

Still, Jones felt his future was on the offensive side of the ball, and he expected that he would continue to play running back in college. After all, he had speed to burn. His dad was a hurdler for Purdue and Jones himself earned an Illinois state title in the hurdles for Plano High. He also finished sixth at state in the 100-meter dash. He was his school's team MVP in both sports, football and track.

But one of his high school coaches saw things differently.

"My linebacker coach there was like, 'Joe, when you get to college, they're going to move you to linebacker,'" said Jones. "I'm like, no. All my other coaches said, no, they won't. But he said, 'Joe, when you get to college, you're going to put a bunch of weight on, and then be a linebacker.' I was like no way.

"After six weeks of summer school at Northwestern and working out, I went from 200 pounds to 220."

Jones was now a linebacker.

Or more specifically, he was a special teamer. After redshirting his freshman season, he played sparingly the next two years before appearing in every game in his third campaign, albeit as a special teams ace and backup linebacker. In his final season, he saw even more action on defense, but still only started five games.

That's not to say he wasn't effective. Jones posted at least five tackles in four contests, and in the Wildcats' victory in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl over No. 23 Pittsburgh, he recorded three tackles, including a tackle for loss. And this all came despite playing much of the season with a broken right hand.

Those in Jones' position, however, don't get one of the limited invites to the NFL Scouting Combine, so when Northwestern's Pro Day came around, he knew he had to make it count.

"I wasn't the big-name guy in college; my main role was special teams," said Jones. "My last year I played a lot more linebacker, but yeah, I just thought, I'm going to show them I'm an athlete, that I can run, I can move, and go from there."

Needless to say, he did. He ran a 4.45 time in the 40-yard dash, which was better than any linebacker who did attend the combine and his 35.5-inch vertical jump, 6.72-second clocking in the three-cone drill and 4.21 20-yard shuttle would have ranked among the position's best.

"I was just hoping for an undrafted free agent spot, honestly even a tryout spot," said Jones. "Just give me one opportunity. Give me one day to show that I can play football."

The Cowboys gave him that opportunity. After he went undrafted, Jones was heavily recruited by three teams, including the Seahawks and Raiders, but chose to come to Dallas because he felt there was a better chance to make the team. The Cowboys didn't draft any linebackers and have a history of giving undrafted free agents a shot. His college head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, had also gone to training camp with the Cowboys as a player and recommended the organization.

"I had a bunch of teammates who were from Texas, and they loved it," said Jones. "It felt like the best fit for me."

And so far, Jones has made a good impression. In that opening Hall of Fame Game win over the Cardinals, he led the Cowboys with eight solo tackles and nine tackles overall. He then followed it up with four more takedowns, including a tackle for loss against the Rams in the second exhibition affair. His 13 tackles total is currently tops on the team.

But the work is far from done. Although Jones perhaps doesn't have the pedigree of some of those draft picks, what he's attempting to do isn't unprecedented. Most recently, Danny McCray became a standout special teamer and backup safety for the Cowboys from 2010-2013 despite never being a starter during his collegiate days at LSU.

"There's still a ton of room for improvement," Jones said about his game. "I'm nowhere near where I need to be, where my coaches want me to be, where I want to be. I've still got a lot to learn."

Which, given what he's already accomplished, is not going to be a problem.

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