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MSU vs. OLE MISS: The Battle of Houston, MS and Chris Jones

Now that college signing day is over and the LOI’s are in the file, it’s time to look back over one of the wildest stories I’ve ever seen in recruiting anywhere.

The Battle of Houston, MS occurred between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University for star defensive end prospect Chris Jones.

Jones is a small town, soft spoken kid with a NFL body.  The 6’-6” 255 pound phenom is the kind of recruit that elicits mythological stories.  You know the type, the prototypical player that is too good to be true.  Like the fictitious Sidd Finch, an orphan, raised in Tibet, that throws a 165 mph fastball. 

Except this story is real, or at least as far as I know, it is real.

It all begins over two years ago in the small Mississippi town of Houston, MS.  In a town of less than 4,000 people in North East Mississippi, players like Chris Jones do not come along very often.  Actually players of Chris Jones’ caliber have never played at Houston, MS.

During the summer of 2011, Chris was more interested in basketball.  His family has recently moved to Houston and at 290 pounds he was not as quick off the line of scrimmage as he needed to be.  He had great size but after only playing a portion of his junior season, his stats were not impressive.

A visit from a University of Southern Mississippi coach may have proved to be a turning point in Jones life.  After seeing Jones play, the USM coach broke the news that he may not have the speed to play in the CUSA. 

Jones obviously took this as a personal challenge.  While he did not go through junior day camps, he went to work in the backyard.  He hit the gym hard, lost 40 pounds and developed a work ethic and attitude that may be the most impressive part of his game.     

Ole Miss’ coaches were in loose contact with Jones before he moved to Houston, but MSU was willing to take a real chance on Jones.  He was a local kid, had good size and to head coach Dan Mullen’s credit, he is not afraid to develop a player that wants to be a bulldog. 

Jones made a verbal commitment to play at MSU in June, 2012 before his senior season and he flourished.  Jones averaged 11 tackles per game and led his small town school to its first ever play-off win.  Jones became a late addition to the Jackson, MS based Clarion-Ledger newspaper’s 10 most wanted football recruits, which led to his invitation to the Mississippi-Alabama all-star game. 

Against the best players in the region, Jones was named MVP for the Mississippi team, with eight tackles, a sack and three tackles for loss.  Then the Under Armour All-America game called.  With an early sack, college coaches began to foam at the mouth.  “Who is this kid from Mississippi playing better than Robert Nkemdiche.” (The consensus number one player in the nation.)

Jones finished the Under Armour game with three tackles, the one sack, one tackle for a loss, forced two fumbles and almost blocked two punts, all while sharing snaps at the position.

“Are you serious, right now?” was my question. 

Everyone knew Jones’ new found attention could make it difficult for Dan Mullen to hold on to his commitment.  The offers began to pour in from all over the nation.  Alabama and Auburn coaches met with Jones and his family in his home.  Florida set up an official visit for Jones.

The attention and phone calls became overwhelming for the young player, but you know it had to be incredibly self-affirming.  Chris Jones knew he was capable to be this type of player and all his hard work was paying off.

Eventually, due to his relationship with MSU and Jones’ desire to play close to home, Dan Mullen was able to hold off most of the other schools except one school that had something the other SEC schools didn’t have.  Chris Jones had friends at Ole Miss.  Oxford is only 55 miles from Houston, MS and his father wanted Jones to visit other schools, to at least know what exists outside of MSU.

During the weekend of January 25th, 2012, Jones was scheduled to visit MSU on a big recruiting weekend.  The plan was for Jones to be a recruiter himself, as a number of big time recruits would also be on campus and Jones could be a big influence, as a long time commitment.

The only issue was Jones wasn’t planning to go to Starkville that weekend.  He told recruiting services he would be in Starkville but he was actually visited Ole Miss that weekend.

Ole Miss was also planning a 5-star weekend, where some of the best players in the nation would be in Oxford; Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and others visited.  The weekend played out on social media as photos were posted from the recruits twitter accounts of Chris Jones in an Ole Miss jersey, being recognized at a local Oxford night club while fans chanted his name.

How would I handle being treated like that, I have since asked myself. 

Ole Miss fans are hungry for wins and they know that in order to win, you have to have top players.  The students follow recruiting, they know what guys look like, they want to take pictures with them and shake their hand and make sure the recruits know they are wanted and welcomed on the Oxford campus.

Chris Jones had to be blown away by his weekend in Oxford.

After the “rock star” treatment, Jones was apparently thoroughly confused as his father began to favor Ole Miss, his mother was a solid MSU fan.  Jones, like any good southern boy greatly considers what mama wants.  So before he made such a huge decision on his college choice, he wanted mom to visit Ole Miss. 

The plan was to visit Ole Miss the next Saturday and have one last visit to MSU on Sunday before signing day on Wednesday, February 6th.

But true to form, just like the week before, as the phone calls began to mount and the media ink began to flow, he pulled back and closed himself off. 

Many MSU outlets reported Jones would not actually visit Ole Miss and that Jones was telling them he was 100% bulldog.

Jones is a really nice kid who had an incredibly hard decision to make.  As a high school senior, the choice of college is the hardest decision you have to make, but for the second highest rated defensive end in America, the implications of his decision affects truly millions of fans of SEC football.  This kind of pressure had to be crushing.  So I would never criticize his decision or his method used.

From information gathered during the weekend before signing day, we know Chris Jones travels to play Kosciusko in basketball and soon after shows up in Oxford with a friend.  UM fan sites blow up with reports of Jones’ unexpected visit. 

The next morning, Jones met with the Ole Miss staff and headed back to Houston, for a lunch meeting with Dan Mullen.  MSU fan sites begin to report that Jones stated he in fact had not visited Ole Miss the night before, creating an internet battle between the two schools fans’ on message boards and twitter.  Never have I seen two schools so sure of their non-compatible points of view.

According to sources, Jones would agree to attend MSU on an official visit later that day for the MSU-LSU basketball game on the Starkville campus and he would return home that night.

ESPN’s Kipp Adams reported late Saturday night that Jones did not actually return to Houston, he in fact spent the night in Oxford, MS, where he was photographed at a Sigma Nu fraternity party along with several other current Ole Miss football players.

Kipp Adams also drops a bomb in the saga, by also reporting that Jones began to receive death threats from fans in regard to his indecision of schools to attend.

At the same time Jones is texting other media outlets that he is not at Ole Miss.

Sunday morning, Jones finally gets the chance to show his parents the Ole Miss campus and tour the football facilities.  After lunch the Jones family returns to Houston, MS and it is believed they return to the MSU campus to watch the Super Bowl with the MSU coaching staff.

Reading through the lines of what is actually happening and what is being reported was not that difficult if you are an objective fan.

Chris Jones has been a MSU commit for over a year, he identified with the bulldogs and really appreciated that he was wanted by Coach Dan Mullen.  The other side of this story is he had not visited other schools and when he got the opportunity to visit other schools, his perspective changed and his “world” got larger.

He realized he had more opportunities to consider.

In a short time, due to the excitement and momentum that was in Oxford at the time, Jones bought in, emotionally, to the idea of joining Robert Nkemdice, Lavon Hooks and others that would create a really impressive defensive line.  It was becoming harder and harder to say no to the peer pressure coming from the Ole Miss recruits.

During the next couple of days, Jones finally got the chance to think about all the attention and visits and by his own account, up until the day of signing day, was going to flip his commitment to Ole Miss.

In a video interview with the Clarion-Ledger, after he sent in his letter of intent to play at MSU Wednesday morning, he was 80% sure he would sign with Ole Miss that morning.  But as is often the case, when you have a big decision to make, you tend to choose what you know rather than the unknown.

Chris Jones was more comfortable with MSU, they had recruited him longer, believed in him when no one else was recruiting him and he felt more comfortable at MSU since he has made so many visits to the Starkville campus.

Jake Wimberly and I agreed on the MakeItRainSports podcast that given the depth chart at both schools it would make more sense for Jones to choose MSU, and that is what he ultimately did.

Jones is a great football player now and will develop and become so much better under an SEC weight training program and high level coaching.  He could be a superstar at either school but at MSU he will have more playing time and get on the field faster compared to the log jam on the defensive line at Ole Miss. 

MSU will allow Jones to develop, on-the-job, and that is usually the best way to learn. 

As a college sports fan, the fate of the recruits should always be more important than your school, and even as an Ole Miss fan, I have to say I think he made the right decision and wish him the best in his career.

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