By Trey Mongrue
Les Miles is not usually one who speaks with candor, but his final comment to close Monday’s luncheon with the media shed a little light on what the LSU head coach is thinking with the 2014 season at its climax.
“We’re entering the point of this season where we’re going to look forward to playing some very competitive games and wanting victory,” he said. “All hands on deck.”
Taken at face value, it would seem that Miles is referring to the many freshmen that make up nearly a third of LSU’s roster. After all, the question that led to that comment was about the potential playing time of first-year linebacker Clifton Garrett.
But the “all hands on deck” motto is apt in more ways than one.
Take Melvin Jones, for example.
The seldom-used sophomore fullback wasn’t expecting to see much playing time in last Saturday’s game at Florida. Those expectations were thrown out of whack when the coaches pulled Jones aside before he boarded the flight to Gainesville and told him that he’d be starting in the backfield.
“I didn’t know what the situation was until they told me right before we left,” the 6-foot-2, 258-pound Jones recalled. “I knew that I would have to go in and fill some big shoes.”
With an ankle injury keeping regular fullback Connor Neighbors back in Baton Rouge, Jones not only made his first career start in LSU’s 30-27 win over the Gators, but he led the Tigers in receptions and opened up running lanes for Leonard Fournette and the rest of the tailbacks.
“He just put a smile on his face and went to work,” Miles said of Jones’ performance against Florida. “He made several big catches and a couple of significant blocks.”
In his young LSU career, Jones has seen action in 15 games – mostly on special teams. The bulk of the snaps he has seen at linebacker has been at a point when the game is already well in LSU’s favor. He thinks that a big reason why he was able to make the transition from backup to starter so well is because of the confidence that Neighbors instilled in him.
“I never thought for a second that I couldn’t play this position.”
– LSU fullback Melvin Jones
– LSU fullback Melvin Jones
Sitting out of practice for much of the week leading up to the game with the hopes of his ankle feeling better come game time, the senior Neighbors hardly left Jones’ side to help the sophomore prepare just in case. And even when they were separated by a couple of states on the day of the game, Jones still couldn’t shake Neighbors.
“He called in the morning on the day of the game,” Jones said. “He told me that I was the man for the job and that when my number is called, I would have to rise to the occasion.”
Rise to the occasion he did.
Although he totaled just 19 receiving yards, Jones accounted for four of quarterback Anthony Jennings’ 10 completions on the night. Considering that it was Jones first start and LSU had never registered a completion to a fullback in 2014 prior to Saturday, the Gators’ defense clearly was not expecting it – no matter how many times the Tigers kept doing it.
“When I realized that I was catching so many passes, I was like, ‘This is crazy,’” laughed Jones. “We run those plays a lot in practice, but I had no clue that it would be called so many times in a game.”
While the receiving numbers are nice, Jones’ biggest contribution was something that does not show up in the box score.
With LSU down 17-7 in the second quarter and facing a fourth down on Florida’s 1-yardline, Jones took out three Gator defenders on the edge with one block to allow Kenny Hilliard to make his way into the end zone.
“If I’m called on, I have to do what I have to do,” he explained. “I prepare every day to do stuff like that.”
Blocking is the one thing that Jones admits that he needs to continue working on. In fact, he is still relatively new to the fullback position.
As a two-way player at Washington-Marion High School in Lake Charles, Jones played quarterback, tailback, tight end and even wide receiver on offense and committed to LSU as a middle linebacker, but he made the switch to fullback on the second day of fall practice last year.
“From the first day that I moved over, I never doubted myself,” he Jones. “I never thought for a second that I couldn’t play this position. I wanted to have everything thrown at me so I could best prepare myself for it.”
Jones isn’t the first defensive player to make the switch to fullback. Neighbors was a linebacker as well, and the starter before him, J.C. Copeland, came to LSU as a highly-touted defensive tackle.
While Jones does like the idea of scoring touchdowns (he scored his first and only one of his career against Furman last season), Jones admits that he still misses playing on defense. In particular, he longs for the instinctual play and aggressiveness that is needed at linebacker, so he is trying to implement that quality as much as he can when he lines up at fullback.
“The mindset I have now is a little less aggressive than what I had on defense,” Jones explained. “Now I have to read different blocking schemes before making a decision. At linebacker, if you see the ball, you go.”
However, with a good first step behind him, Jones now looks to make a name for himself at a position that is largely invisible in an age where spread offenses do not find much use for bruising fullbacks.
Neighbors returned to practice this week and is expected back for this weekend’s game against Kentucky, so Jones may have to return back to mostly special teams duty for the time being. However, he is happy that he received the opportunity to show what he can do on the big stage.
Continuing to live by Neighbors’ words and Miles’ urges for every player to step up, if Jones’ number is called once more, he knows he will be ready to do it all over again.
“I wanted to earn my stripes,” he said. “I’ve got one game down now, I’m experienced and I know what playing in the SEC is like. I feel excited.”