D.J. Jones knows what it means to take the circuitous route. A graduate of Wren High in Piedmont, S.C., Jones had to take a detour through junior college in order to get academically eligible for Division I football. He landed at East Mississippi Community College (of Netflix's Last Chance U fame) and helped EMCC to a 24–0 record over two years with back-to-back NJCAA national championships.
After shining at the juco level, Jones headed for Ole Miss, where he played in every game in 2015, recording 40 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss. In the spring, Ole Miss coaches voted him as the most improved defensive player. This week, he chatted about the Rebels' big game Saturday against Alabama, his post-football plans and basketball.
Lindsay Schnell:Ole Miss has beaten the Crimson Tide the last two seasons. A lot of times, teams freeze up when they play a powerhouse. They panic in pressure situations against programs that have been really successful. Why do you think you guys have had success against Alabama?
D.J. Jones: Mainly preparation. The way we get ready. Our first practice this week, it was intense but everyone was focused. By game day, everyone is ready and knows what they have to do.
LS:What do you think wins like that, over Alabama, do for recruiting?
DJ: It's major. After we beat them for the third time, people are gonna be thinking, "Man, if I go to 'Bama, I'm gonna have to play and lose to Ole Miss every year." As far as I know, we've picked up [commitments] each of the times we've beat them the last two years.
LS:You are one of the strongest players in college football. You're 6-foot, 321 pounds and you can power clean 350, bench 430 and squat 700. So first of all, what your favorite lift?
DJ: It's gotta be squat.
LS:Do you have goals for how much you want to max at squat, bench, all that good stuff?
DJ: As far as my health goes, I should probably stop at squatting 700. I'm a little heavy and with these knees, whoooo, I'll stop at 700. I mean I could keep going, but I want to be able to walk down the stairs when I'm 70.
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LS:Who is the best athlete at Ole Miss that you've ever met?
DJ: Marquis Haynes. He can do it all. He's one of the fastest guys on the team, and he's a defensive end. He's probably got the highest vertical on the team, and he's a defensive end. He looks like a receiver (at 6'3", 220 pounds), and he's a defensive end. That pretty much tells the story.
LS:I thought you'd say someone I'd never heard of, like an Ole Miss gymnast.
DJ: I'm telling you, he can probably be a gymnast, too. [Editor's note: It turns out Ole Miss doesn't have gymnastics, so this is a pipe dream from both reporter and subject.]
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LS:You attended East Mississippi Community College, and you're referenced on Last Chance U, the Netflix documentary. What was it like to see all your coaches and teammates and campus on TV?
DJ: It was awesome. Just knowing that everyone is getting to see what we went through, things we had and didn't have, how we got the two national championships.
LS:The star of the documentary wound up being Brittany Wagner, the academic adviser. Why was she able to build relationships with players, and get guys to trust her?
DJ: Most of the time counselors come off as, "First I'm your counselor, and your job is to do your grades, and my job is to monitor those." But she comes off as a mother-type. When I first got there, she sat me down in her office and said, "I know it's tough here, there's nothing to do here. If you ever need to talk or you need anything, you let me know." Then the conversation about academics started. With her, it's love and passion first, along with academics.
LS:In the same vein, head coach Buddy Stephens has taken a lot of criticism for being so tough on you guys, for cursing so much. What do you wish people knew about him that maybe didn't come through in the documentary?
DJ: Honestly, I think everything came through. I just wish they knew about the 2014 and '15 national championship teams and that what he said to us, how he treated us, that made us win. The way he talks to us, people need hard teachers sometimes. I think it made me the man I am today, along with my father. Going there (to EMCC) and having the opportunity to play for a coach like that, it opened my eyes.
LS:What do you want people to know about junior college players after watching Last Chance U? What do you think a lot of people don't realize, or didn't realize until they saw that?
DJ: They have more drive and passion than the kids who qualified out of high school with a 3.5 GPA. They're just as good as them, on the field and off the field, in the classroom and out. People make mistakes, just like I did. Grade-wise, I was one who didn't really care about academics, I was a football guy. But junior college players, they learn differently. It's like a fifth year of high school.
LS:So who's going to be the next star from Last Chance U?
DJ: I'd gotta say (running back and receiver) Isaiah Wright. He was No. 17 on the show, but they changed his number to 4 now. He's a freak.
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LS:Besides a professional football player, what do you want to be when you grow up?
DJ: I'd like to be a music producer. Not the type that's every once in a while featured in a song, but someone who makes beats and makes music.
LS:Do you have a favorite artist you'd like to work with?
DJ: Oh, man. YFN Lucci and probably Lil Wayne.
LS:I saw a video that you posted on Twitter of you dunking a basketball. And obviously coach Hugh Freeze has a history with basketball as a high school coach. So I wondered, have you two played one-on-one yet and if so, who won?
DJ: We have not, but if we played to 10 it would be 10-nothing, me. He wouldn't have a chance.
LS:What if you played to 21?
DJ: 21 to nothing, he wouldn't have a chance. Oh, O.K., I'll spot him five points.