David Jones was set to begin his junior year as a University of Kentucky wide receiver when his position coach, Joker Phillips, gave him a blunt assessment about his future.
“Joker asked me, ‘Do you want to make some money?' ” Jones said. “I said, ‘Yeah.' ” He said, ‘Well then you need to go to defensive back.' ”
But Phillips' suggestion came with a caveat. Jones came to UK as a defensive back and showed some promise at cornerback his freshman year, yet he had always yearned to be a wide receiver. The coaches obliged his sophomore year, but Jones caught just seven passes for 101 yards.
If Jones was serious about his future, Phillips said, it was time to let go of his dreams of being a receiver.
“At one time, his heart wasn't in being a defensive back,” Phillips said. “I told him, ‘If you go over there now, your heart has to be in it.' I felt David's best chance to play at the next level was at defensive back. David's a big, strong, physical guy with good hands and feet. Just seeing him over there (at cornerback) his first year, you could tell he had the potential to be an NFL defensive back.”
Jones reluctantly agreed to the move.
“I had to swallow my pride a little bit,” Jones said. “Both for the good of the team and for my future.”
Jones was a backup corner most of last year, but then the light came on in the spring, as the staff labeled him one of the team's most improved players.
Still, it appeared he'd be coming off the bench again in 2008 until starting corner Paul Warford was ruled academically ineligible for the year. Now Jones has the inside track on the open spot opposite junior All-Southeastern Conference candidate Trevard Lindley.
But Jones, a senior from Belfry High School, isn't taking anything for granted. Seniors Robbie McAtee and Shomari Moore, redshirt freshman Randall Burden and true freshman Cartier Rice are in the hunt, so Jones knows he'll have to be sharp in fall camp.
“Guys got hungrier for that position once Paul got kicked off, so I've got to step my game up and be just as hungry to get that position,” he said. “I don't have it yet.”
UK Coach Rich Brooks said Jones has been solid in camp thus far, and Phillips said Jones is physically overpowering Kentucky's young receivers.
“He's been giving us fits out there,” Phillips said. “He's so strong, and when he gets his hands out there, it's hard to get off of him.”
That's the kind of play defensive coordinator Steve Brown expects to see from Jones all season.
“David just needs to be consistent,” he said. “He's got the tools. One thing he's worked on is overcoming bad plays. We're all going to get beat, but you've got to shake it off and get ready to play the next play. He's a senior now, a veteran guy, and I think he's better equipped to be able to do that than he was as a freshman.”
But have we really seen the last of Jones at receiver? The Cats don't have any veterans in the receiver rotation other than Dicky Lyons Jr., and Phillips did sneak Jones in for a play in the Blue-White Spring Game.
Phillips said UK has enough bodies that it would take an emergency situation to use Jones on offense. Jones jokingly pointed out that he wasn't invited to the cornhole parties held for the offensive players at Phillips' house.
“So he can't call me if he needs an extra receiver when he goes to five-receiver sets,” Jones said with a laugh. “If I can't come to the parties, I can't play offense.”