MSU's Naquan Jones considered opting out, but is making most of senior season
It’s hard to blame Naquan Jones for wanting to get out of his apartment and run.
The start of the college football season wasn’t far off and the senior defensive tackle at Michigan State had tested positive for COVID-19. His symptoms were minor — Jones said he lost the sense of taste for a few days — and he knew he had to do something to try and stay in shape, even if it was something small.
So, Jones donned his mask and headed outside.
“It wasn’t recommended, obviously,” Jones said on Tuesday as Michigan State prepares to face No. 11 Northwestern on Saturday. “I was told to stay at home, but I would just go in this field outside my apartment and try to run, just stay in a little bit of shape, because we were approaching the season. So I went to go run with a mask on and do what I could do outside and not being around people to spread COVID, obviously. But I wanted to stay in a decent amount of shape before I had to go put pads on and play a game.”
Before long — it was just a couple days, really — Jones said he felt fine and after being away from the team for the required amount of time he was back. Not only was it exactly where Jones wanted to be, it’s what the Spartans needed.
One of the few players back on defense with any significant experience, coach Mel Tucker and the Spartans were counting on Jones to man the middle of the defensive line after serving as the primary backup to Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk for the better part of the previous three seasons.
It was during that time that Jones proved, even as a backup, that he had the ability to live up to the four-star billing he had coming out of Evanston, Ill., as a member of the 2016 recruiting class. After redshirting that first season, Jones appeared in 13 games in each of the next three seasons, often playing as well as his two older teammates.
Now, it’s Jones who is leading a youth movement up front, and it’s a role he relishes.
“Coach Tucker tries his best to put me in leadership positions, especially when having such a young D-line,” Jones said. “I feel like it's not only my job to make myself better but obviously make the guys around me better. They haven't really had too much playing experience besides (sophomore) Jacob Slade in the interior, and I just want to make those guys feel accustomed to playing in a game. … I just want guys to go out there and play comfortable and that's what I feel like I've been able to do is share my experiences from playing behind two good guys.”
Jones’ role, of course, is much bigger than simply being a mentor to his younger teammates. Through four games, he’s recorded 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss while hurrying the quarterback twice and recovering a fumble. He’s also the anchor of a run defense that, outside of the Iowa game, has been solid all season.
Now in his fifth year in the program, odds are Jones doesn’t take advantage of the free season of eligibility and heads to the NFL Draft in the spring. He’s likely to get selected, and until then, Tucker and his staff will do all they can to help Jones get there.
“Naquan is a young man I’ve spent quite bit of time with, one-on-one, you know just talking to him,” Tucker said. “And Coach (Ron) Burton does an outstanding job coaching him and has a good relationship with him. You know, Naquan, he's a people person and he's obviously a big guy that's got tremendous talent. For his size he moves very well, has got initial quickness, and he’s a guy that can do a lot of things.
“What I talk to him about is consistency and performance. That’s how you become successful. It’s day-in and day-out, in practice, the weight room, all those things and you carry it over into the game.
"He wants to be a good player, he wants to be a consistent player, and I see him working towards that and we're helping him do that.”
Jones is making all the sacrifices. He hasn’t seen his family since he reported back to campus, making sure to take the pandemic seriously as he works toward his ultimate goal of the NFL. Not only has he dealt with the coronavirus, but so have other members of his family.
“It’s something that my family take very serious,” Jones said.
He admitted he was apprehensive back before the season began. Roughly a year after the death of his mother, Germaine Thomas, Jones was unsure if playing would be safe. He saw others deciding to opt out of the season, a thought that crossed his mind.
Ultimately, Jones said he felt safe at Michigan State.
“I had a few concerns before the season was originally postponed,” Jones said. “It was just very stressful for not only me but my family. I don't want to speak for everyone, but I just know that it was very stressful for my family, so I did have a few concerns. But at the end of the day I love to play football and MSU was doing a great job with their safety measures and I felt safe. So that kind of was out of my head.”
Jones feels safe, he feels confident and he’s ready for whatever life has in store next. He’s set to graduate at the end of the semester in advertising management and says he could see himself as a coach someday.
In the meantime he’s doing his best to make the most of this season at Michigan State while making his mom proud.
He keeps pictures of her around his apartment as a reminder to use the sorrow and sadness of losing her as inspiration to keep pushing himself, even when times are tough.
“She had very high expectations of me,” Jones said. “Not only in football but academically, as well. So I just use that as motivation every day.”