Dec. 26, 2011
After a morning practice on Dec. 21, Vanderbilt's players dispersed to all parts of the country to visit friends and family for Christmas before reconvening in Memphis on Monday. As teammates hustled through airports or fought holiday traffic while driving to the Bluff City, redshirt junior DeAndre Jones, a Memphis native, cherished the extra time he had to spend with family in his hometown.
Beyond getting to play in his backyard, the entire Liberty Bowl experience will be a stroll down memory lane for Jones. Saturday's bowl game against Cincinnati will be played at the Liberty Bowl Stadium, where Jones was 4-0 all-time in the annual Kickoff Classic as a high school player at Memphis University School. Jones' high school alma mater will also serve as the team's practice site throughout the week.
"It is nice to be able to play in my hometown," Jones said. "It kind of feels like a high school game to me. To have so many people that are going to watch me play is great. It is an extra comfort level to come back here."
The thought of playing again in his hometown and practicing at the location he has practiced so many times before is yet to sink in, but he doesn't expect it to be long before it does. "After I get on the practice field at my old high school, it will start to hit," said Jones, who expects to see many of his former high school coaches at practices this week.
His former coaches were among the throng of individuals to flood Jones' phone with messages and calls after the bowl announcement. To handle all of the requests from friends and family to attend the Liberty Bowl, Jones turned to his family for assistance. Jones enlisted his mother, Lisa, father, Demetres and cousin, Jeff, to collect the requests and give them to him after they had talked to every last relative. In total, Jones expects there to be 22 friends and family at Saturday's game.
"I had to divvy it up," Jones said. "I let my family figure out who was coming to the game and I focused on football."
A backup middle linebacker, Jones is not yet a household name with Commodore fans, but that will likely change next season when fellow Memphis native Chris Marve graduates after starting the last three seasons in the middle of Vanderbilt's defense. Jones is the likely candidate to be Marve's replacement.
In limited action, Jones has enjoyed the best season of his career. He has a career-best 16 tackles and also has forced and recovered a fumble this season. Despite being saddled second on the depth chart behind the All-SEC linebacker, Jones has not wavered in his approach of absorbing as much information as he can to improve each and every day.
The coaching staff took note of Jones' approach, and during the fall told him that they have full trust in him to run the defense. For Jones, the compliment meant everything.
"I really appreciate that the coaches really trust me to run the defense and when it is time for me to the be the point man, they have confidence in me knowing that I can run the defense," Jones said. "It means a lot to me that they trust me in that manner."
Also taking note of Jones' improvement has been Marve, who has no doubt that he posses the ability and posses the work ethic that has him fully prepared to start at middle linebacker next season.
"DeAndre is a really cerebral guy," Marve said of Jones, who is majoring in mechanical engineering. "He understands the defense really well. He knows all the calls and all the checks. He's a very hard worker. There is never a moment when he isn't giving it his all. He's always trying to outwork the next person."
The formula Jones used to find himself in position to takeover at middle linebacker next season has been a combination of hard work, a keen understanding of the game and constant observation at games and practices, particularly of Marve. Jones has long had respect for Marve, who he had known of since their high school days. Marve also hosted Jones on his recruiting visit, and the two have grown to be close friends.
"I look to him as a mentor," Jones said. "One time this summer, I had trouble getting my cover 2 drops and he stayed after practice with me and showed me different things I can do. He was basically being a coach for me. He's helped me out a lot and I appreciate the fact that he has been willing to help me and not just been the big man on campus not willing to help the little guys. He's kind of like a big brother to me."
The respect between the two is mutual. Even as the starter, Marve knows some of his success must be credited to Jones pushing him to get better ever day.
"He's a guy who hasn't necessarily played as much as other people have, but there is not a day when you don't see DeAndre working his butt off every single time and you have to respect a guy like that," said Marve. "He comes to work with his hard hat on and keeps his mouth closed and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him."
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