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Here comes Barrett Jones, straight at you, rolling through the Alabama football offices on a scooter. It's three weeks before the BCS championship game, and this self-propelled four-wheeler enables him to keep his left foot immobilized. Jones injured his foot, which was in a temporary cast, in the first half of the SEC title game. But it didn't slow him then -- he didn't miss a snap in Alabama's 32-28 victory over Georgia -- and it's not preventing him from nimbly cruising down the carpeted hallways of the Mal Moore Athletic Complex now.
This sight -- the 6-foot-5, 302-pound Jones barreling ahead with startling athleticism for a man his size -- has frightened Alabama opponents over the last four years. The most versatile offensive lineman in Crimson Tide history, Jones has started 48 games during his standout career: 25 at right guard, 10 at left tackle and 13 at center. Over that stretch, a Tide tailback has rushed for 100-plus yards on 24 different occasions.
A three-time All-America who won the Outland Trophy at left tackle in 2011 and the Rimington Trophy at center this season, Jones is a perfectionist. According to the Alabama coaching staff, he missed only six blocking assignments in 606 snaps in 2012. In the SEC title game, despite suffering that left foot injury in the first quarter, Jones neutralized Georgia's 6-3, 358-pound nose guard John Jenkins in the second half; Alabama rushed for 183 yards over the final 30 minutes to secure a spot in Miami. "I may not be the biggest or fastest guy out there, but I like to think I have a good feel for angles and just figuring out ways to get the job done," said Jones. "It always boils down to pad level, technique and fundamentals."
His impact isn't lost on his teammates. "What Barrett did in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia left all of us in awe," said D.J. Fluker, Alabama's starting left guard. "If he was in pain, he never showed it. We had no idea he was hurting. And then the next thing you know he's on crutches in the locker room. Barrett is not only the smartest guy I know, but he's also probably the toughest."
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Growing up in Germantown, Tenn., a suburb about 20 miles southeast of Memphis, Jones was a natural -- at playing the violin. He took up the instrument at age three. Two years later, little Barrett was toting his violin to nursing homes, where he'd tickle the strings and make music with members of his church. His parents didn't allow him to play football until sixth grade -- Jones grew up a Crimson Tide fan, and his father, Rex, played basketball at Alabama under Wimp Sanderson -- so he continued to stand in front of crowds at hospitals and weddings, wowing bystanders with his songs. He was so good that if you hummed a tune, Jones could replicate it after a few minutes on his violin. His parents and instructors believed he could become a professional one day -- if only he stuck with it.
"The violin taught Barrett discipline because he practiced one hour a day and it taught him how to perform in front of people," said Rex, an administrator at Evangelical Christian High in Germantown. "He was never fazed by crowds and he still isn't."
In the classroom, Jones was an intensely inquisitive student, constantly raising his hand from his desk in the front row. His third grade teacher once joked to Jones' parents that she needed to hire a full-time assistant to answer Barrett's questions. "Barrett's mind works faster than most people's," said Rex. "He always wanted to know how things worked and why. For Barrett, the more you throw at him the better, and I think that's one reason he's been able to play three different positions in three years at Alabama."
In sixth grade, Jones put on a football uniform for the first time for his junior high team. And almost immediately, it was as if the pads and cleats transformed his personality. Big-hearted and constantly smiling off the field, he learned to relish the physical contact on it; he was as intense and ruthless as anyone on his squad. When he blocked an extra point in his first season of action, he broke his arm -- but it didn't slow him down. "Dad, I'm not going to miss any games because of a broken bone," Jones told his father. The next week, with a pad around his cast, Jones was back out there wreaking havoc.
Jones' life changed dramatically the following year, in seventh grade. That's when he sprouted eight inches and required a size-15 shoe. By eighth grade, he stood at 6-3 and 200 pounds. He was athletic enough to dunk a basketball, and powerful enough to dominate football games from his offensive tackle position. Yet Jones was still, in his words, "a nerd." That same year of his growth spurt, a teacher introduced him to the game of Scrabble. He started meeting with his school's Scrabble club twice a week at 6:30 a.m., and the results were striking. With a partner from his club, Jones finished 15th in a national Scrabble competition in Boston near the end of the school year.
When Jones reached high school, he stopped playing violin -- "I don't even like to tell my teammates that I ever played, because of the grief they give me," he said -- to focus on football. As a senior, he was named a 2007 U.S. Army All-American. SuperPrep ranked Jones as 20th best offensive lineman in the nation and the No. 1 overall player in Tennessee. Rivals listed Jones as the country's top center.
Unsurprisingly, the offers started pouring in. Nearly every school in the SEC offered Jones a scholarship. He didn't make up his mind until he walked into Nick Saban's office in Tuscaloosa, where the then first-year coach put the hard sell on Jones. Though Alabama was coming off a 7-6 season, Saban laid out his vision for how he planned to build the Tide into a power. Saban kept telling Jones to believe in "The Process" that he was installing.
"That was the first time I ever heard the term 'The Process,'" recalled Jones. "It basically means just focusing on the little things and not getting wrapped up in the big picture. Coach Saban was very determined and very adamant that he was going to turn this program around. I wanted to be a part of that."
After redshirting in 2008, Jones started all 14 games at right guard in '09. Though he was one of three new starters on the line, the Tide rolled to the national title behind their smashmouth running game and the stout play of their front wall. The starting unit wasn't flagged for an offensive holding penalty over the final 38 quarters of the '09 season, and it saved its best performance for last. Against Texas in the national championship game, the line ripped open holes for Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, who both rushed for more than 100 yards in Alabama's 37-21 win. "The fact that Barrett was able to step into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman and play at such a high level has been huge for us," said Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy late in the '09 season. "He's going to be a very, very special player. There just isn't much he can't do."
Before the 2011 season, Saban moved Jones to left tackle to protect quarterback AJ McCarron's blind side. Jones missed just nine blocking assignments in 587 snaps. Though he consistently faced defensive ends who were quicker than he was, Jones anchored a line that only allowed 17 sacks in 13 games, the fewest in the SEC. How did he do it? "Just using his head," said McCarron last year. "If he knows there's a speed rusher lined up across from him, he'll make the proper adjustments -- whether it's taking different angles and changing his footwork -- to make sure I have time to get rid of the ball." Near the end of the Tide's national-title winning season, Richardson called Jones, who wound up playing every position on the line except right guard during the year, "the most valuable player on the team."
In April, before the start of spring practice, Saban asked Jones to switch positions again, this time to center to replace William Vlachos. The adjustment was swift. "The biggest reason our offense line is so good is because of Barrett's intelligence," said running back Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 1,182 yards on 184 carries during the regular season. "When he comes to the line of scrimmage, he sees what the defense is going to do before they do it. He gets everyone in the right positions and he communicates with AJ to make sure that we're in the right play. Playing with Barrett has been like a gift. I have to be the happiest running back in the nation to have him blocking for me."
Yet Jones' biggest play of 2012 arguably came when he was on the sideline. As the clock wound down in the fourth quarter of Alabama's game against LSU on Nov. 3, the Tide trailed 17-14. Jones approached offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, who asked Jones what play the Tide should run on their final offensive series of the game. "Screens have been there all night," Jones offered. Minutes later, with less than a minute remaining on the clock, McCarron tossed a screen pass to running back T.J. Yeldon, who promptly sprinted 28 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. "I'm always telling the coaches what they should do," Jones said, smiling. "In that case it actually worked out."
And this, at its core, is what makes Jones so special: his ability to quickly diagnose a situation and offer a solution -- both in football and in life. He graduated last August with an accounting degree and a 4.0 GPA, and he is especially revered in Tuscaloosa for something that has nothing to do with athletics. In the aftermath of the tornado that decimated the town on April 27, 2011, he could be seen going street-to-street and house-to-house with a chainsaw to help clear debris for weeks. Jones had helped others before: He spent two spring breaks on mission trips, one to Haiti and another to Nicaragua. "When you make an impact on someone's life, you'll remember that forever," Jones said. "I don't need to go the beach for spring break. It's just so impactful helping others."
Echoed Saban: "Barrett is a special person. I can't tell you what makes people that way, but he has all the right stuff. If we were still trying to get to the moon, he'd be my first nomination to be the astronaut to get us there."
That's a fitting sentiment. Though Jones didn't carry Alabama to the moon, he certainly helped it ascend to the top of the college football universe.