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It was late October 2014 when University of Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones was trying not to think about how his season-ending shoulder surgery would negatively affect his upcoming draft status. But he could have never predicted how much his epic performance at the NFL Scouting Combine the following February would boost it, either.
As it turned out, Jones wound up getting selected in the first round, 27th overall, of the 2015 NFL Draft, and following a rookie season in which he made impressive progress while playing two different positions amidst massive team disappointment, the Cowboys' cornerback/safety is eagerly looking forward to Year Two.
It's been an eventful 18 months for Jones, as he navigated the transition from student athlete to successful NFL rookie starter.
Coming off a strong junior campaign in which he successfully made the move to cornerback after playing safety in his first two years with the Huskies, Jones started in each of UConn's first seven games in 2014 – the team winning just one – before the injury derailed his senior season. He'd compiled 24 tackles, two interceptions, including one he returned 70 yards for a touchdown, and four pass breakups.
"It was tough, but I knew it was one of those things where there's always a light at the end of the tunnel," the 6-foot, 205-pound Jones said of the injury. "I tried to not let myself get too frustrated. I was happy I didn't allow myself to get consumed by the frustration. It's about keeping your head on straight and understanding the task at hand, and my task was to get healthy. That's all that mattered."
He ignored the notion that the injury would hinder his chances of being drafted, and while concentrating solely on his rehab, tried not to ruminate on things out of his control.
"I was a little worried at first," he acknowledged, "but my agent did a great job of making me focus on getting my shoulder completely healthy and not worrying about where I was, and stressing myself like that. That really kept my head on straight."
The shoulder was nearly healed by the time Jones participated in the combine, and the experience vaulted him into the national spotlight.
Not only did he set a combine standard with a standing broad jump of 12 feet, 3 inches, it established a new world record. But it wasn't just the broad jump that attracted attention. His outstanding marks across the board, including a 44-inch vertical jump, and standout times in the short shuttle (3.94 seconds) and three-cone drill (6.94), provided a complete picture of his athleticism. All ranked among the best scores measured for any of the players on hand, regardless of their positions.
"I did well at the combine, and there was just an outpouring of support from my friends and family," Jones recalled. "It was a great time for me. It obviously changed my projection, and in a lot of ways, it changed my life for the better. It put me in a position to have my film evaluated fairly.
"Obviously, there wasn't much hype on me coming out of college because I didn't play my last six games, so it was nice to get a second chance. It made some people open their eyes and say, 'Let's check out this guy's film. Let's check out this guy's background and see what he's about.' And that led to good things."
Some observers tried to downplay the hype and branded Jones a "workout warrior," as someone who could excel in drills, but whose skills might not translate to the football field.
And to a degree, Jones agreed with that idea. But he also knows that while the combine performance got him noticed, once NFL scouts and general managers dug a little deeper on a guy they may have previously overlooked, he still deserved consideration.
"It's funny because you look at the long jump, I'd say it's the most pointless drill for a football player," Jones said. "But that's what got me the most attention. I just took advantage of the process. It's still a good thing that someone who can jump far can be good at football. Then they saw all the things on film, and along with my character, that suggested I could have a good future."
A big part of that occurred off the field, as Jones went through the extensive interview process, meeting with representatives from most of the NFL teams.
"When I went to the combine, I had a bunch of meetings with coaches and assistant coaches and scouts," Jones said. "It's just an all-day thing, just talking to coaches who are asking you questions about your defense and sometimes teaching you their defense and then you have to recite it to them. To me, that was fun. It was really cool to have an opportunity to talk to coaches about football and stuff like that."
He admitted that it made him pretty nervous to suddenly be face to face with an NFL coach he'd only watched on TV before, like Bill Belichick or Jason Garrett, for that matter.
"You fight through that. It's just something that you get used to after a while," Jones said. "You honestly get used to being nervous. It just becomes normal, really. You walk into a small room and you see the head coach, and say, 'Oh wow, he's right there, asking me questions.'"
The combine clearly improved his draft status, but Jones still wasn't sure exactly where he'd be chosen, even after he was one of 28 players invited by the league to the draft ceremonies in Chicago.
"It wasn't too bad. I was pretty calm for whatever reason," Jones said of his emotional state heading into the big event. "I may be biased because I actually was picked in the first round, but I just enjoyed the process. My agent's very good at letting me know – he wasn't getting us all excited. He said, 'Hey Byron, there's a very good opportunity you may fall to the second or even third round,' so when I came into it, I was ready to stay there for a while. But I got lucky and I got a chance to go late in the first round."
After being picked by the Cowboys, Jones was ecstatic.
"I'm just excited," he said at the time. "It's been a great journey, a roller coaster that I've been enjoying the entire way. From where I was with a sling on my arm at the end of the season to where I am now, I'm just enjoying this entire process."
The Cowboys were equally thrilled to get him, having thoroughly consulted his coach at UConn, Paul Pasqualoni, a former Dallas assistant. Once the selection was made, both Jerry Jones and Garrett pointed to Byron Jones' versatility in being able to play both cornerback and safety as a major plus.
"Certainly the right kind of guy, a guy who is just a really impressive football player," Garrett said of Jones then. "He showed that as a starter for two years at safety and starting at corner for two years. Productive player, a guy who plays the right way, a guy who has a tremendous amount of potential, but also has a chance to play early because of his athletic ability and versatility and, frankly, his experience. We spent a lot of time with him. Coach Pasqualoni coached him and we got enough close views of him from our conversations with him. And we had a chance to bring him in here and had great visits with him. We worked him out, spent a lot of time with him. We think he's going to be a good football player."
Garrett admitted that Jones' effort at the combine really grabbed their attention, and after the Cowboys followed up in making sure he was also a good football player and a guy with impressive character on and off the field, they determined he would be the right fit in Dallas.
"That is one of the reasons you go to the combine," Garrett said. "You want to see these guys move around. You want to see them run, you want to see them jump, you want to see them change direction. Certainly that was something that was very impressive. Not only was the broad jump great, but the vertical leap was outstanding. We also thought the movement was really good.
"He had an impressive combine workout, but let's go back to his experience as a player now – two-year starter at safety, two-year starter at corner. This is not a workout warrior that we drafted. We drafted a football player who we really think plays the right way and has a chance to develop at a couple of different spots for us."
Jones arrived in Dallas a few days later, attending the Cowboys' initial rookie minicamp, and then their OTA workouts later in May, adapting relatively seamlessly to his new surroundings.
"If you know how to handle yourself, you can really just adjust wherever you go," Jones said of coming to a new city and making new friends. "Meeting new people is not too difficult, especially in the locker room. A lot of the defensive backs took me right in and helped me out. I actually came into a great situation in terms of veterans being mature and willing to help me even though I was a rookie, so I was very happy I came into this program."
He immediately got to work learning defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's system, and appeared to pick it up quickly.
"For the most part, it was similar (to what we played at UConn)," Jones said. "Cover three, cover two, man coverage – I just had to learn the terminology and the adjustments throughout the defense."
His ability to play both safety and cornerback, as well as lining up as the slot corner in nickel situations, was on display from the beginning of training camp. Jones learned every aspect of the secondary and indicated that it isn't all that hard switching back and forth.
"It was fun, it was enjoyable," Jones said of moving around. "Any time I could be out there, playing any position for the Cowboys, I was ecstatic. I was just enjoying it. It's difficult if you haven't studied, but if you understand the defensive scheme in its entirety, especially in the secondary, you can kind of interchange positions a little bit. It's just the technique that takes a little time to come along. I never really had a real home position, so I'd work both my corner and safety technique at every practice. I got used to everything changing."
Jones started off the 2015 season being deployed as a reserve, gradually getting more time on the field. He made his first NFL start in the Cowboys' Week 5 loss to New England, and went on to start 11 games overall, including the final 10. He registered 76 tackles on the year, good for fifth on the squad, including two tackles for a loss and a team-high 12 passes defended.[embeddedad0]
It was a good rookie effort, although the fact that he was unable to generate even one turnover over the course of the season was disappointing, as that reflected a problem with which the entire defensive unit struggled. The Cowboys produced just 11 total turnovers, ranking dead last in the NFL.
"It's just one of those things that we tried to emphasize in every practice, and for whatever reason, it just wasn't falling in our direction, which happens," Jones said. "That's life. Sometimes you work hard at something, and it doesn't happen. So you best believe we're going to find a way to get turnovers this year."
Overall, while the team was mired in disappointment and occasional controversy, Jones never really let it affect him on or off the field. After enduring seasons of 5-7, 5-7, 3-9, and 2-10 during his four years at UConn, he was somewhat accustomed to working hard and not seeing a lot of payoff in terms of victories.
"It's not something I'm not used to," Jones said of the difficult circumstances. "I didn't win a lot of games at UConn, so I know how to handle myself when things aren't going right. It's always a learning process. At a different level, but it's the same thing. If you're not winning, you just keep trying, get back and try to get the win. That's what it was for us."
Asked to pinpoint an over-riding lesson he learned over the course of the last year-plus, it's not surprising that Jones touches upon his combine experience and what came afterward.
"One thing I learned is that you've got to be good at football. You just can't be a good athlete who runs fast and jumps high," Jones said. "I had to learn a lot of football skills along the way and had to understand different techniques to use against better, faster receivers and quarterbacks. I learned that pretty quickly, especially in camp, going against guys like Dez Bryant and Tony Romo and Jason Witten."
Looking ahead to the 2016 season, Jones is optimistic he will continue to improve and grow as a player. With a year of experience under his belt, his future in the Cowboys' secondary, whether he's left at one position or continues to switch between cornerback and safety, looks very bright.
"Now I have an idea of what it's like to participate in an NFL season, so I'm looking forward to just excelling, getting some turnovers and getting some interceptions," Jones said. "That's what I'm looking forward to."