From establishing a winning mentality to reducing body fat, Coach Jones pays attention to every detail of the program
“This has been one quick summer,” says Butch Jones, chipper and beaming on Sun Belt Media Day 2. He accepts my hand and delivers a crescendo of succinct but powerful pumps. There isn’t a single wrinkle in his suit jacket. His pocket square is immaculate. His hair is perfect. He’s the Werewolf of Jonesboro, and I’d like to meet his tailor.
“You play in golf this summer,” I ask to break the ice. He’s goodnatured. “No, I don’t play much golf, maybe a couple times a year,” he says. Jones, who delivered the highest rated recruiting class in the Sun Belt for 2022, and is well on his way to do the same in 2023, doesn’t seem the type to spend much time working on a short game.
Jones seizes a seat and we launch into the usual discussion – the slings and arrows of last year’s difficult season, the work that punctuated the off season, and the team’s presence in the community (a Jones staple). He’s especially excited about the body transformation experienced by the bulk of his roster.
“Johnnie Lang doesn’t even look like the same guy,” insists Jones, referring to A-State’s part-time RB and full-time kick returner. “(A-State QB) James Blackman has gained 12 pounds of muscle. I’m thrilled with how we look as a team.”
Jones, built a bit like a pit-bull himself, hasn’t much patience for an unhealthy BPI. It’s one detail upon a heap of details that Jones’ monitors with a CEO’s relentlessness. (The next evening, Jones would be on hand to help host the Helmet & Heels event in Jonesboro; an attendee remarked that it was the most professional handling of the event she’s ever experienced.)
College Football isn’t a big picture operation. Details win championships. Details like attitude. Much like his disdain for excess body fat, Jones is a zealot for building team chemistry. The roster has seen its share of attrition since Jones arrived. One has to believe that there are two types of guys in the Red Wolves locker room: Guys who adopt Jones’ championship mentality, and guys who are better served somewhere else.
By now, quarterback James Blackman and defensive tackle machine Kivon Bennett have joined the discussion. Blackman may have gained a dozen pounds, but he’s still tall and lanky. Bennett seemed hermitically sealed inside his suit, as though it were a device engineered to contain his destructive energy.
I remind Blackman he had endured his fair share of injuries in 2022. I ask him if he’s healthy for a full season. “I feel great,” said Blackman, who seemed perfectly at ease. He’s careful with his words and complimentary of his receivers. He likes the team chemistry, and credits Jones.
I ask Bennett about his switch to linebacker from defensive end – where he ranked first on the team and sixth in the Sun Belt with 8.0 sacks.
“I felt a bit frustrated getting double and triple teamed at defensive end,” admitted Bennett, whos father Cornelius was an NFL linebacker. “Linebacker gives me more opportunities to make places.”
Lastly, I ask Jones if there is a Red Wolves player I should look out for – somebody not on the radar. He identifies several, including Oregon State transfer wideout Champ Fleming. But he’s especially high on Ja’Quez Cross, the transfer running back from Purdue.
Jones and Company have many interviews remaining on the schedule, and we set him free. He lingers, however. We chat about the roster – where it’s strong, and where work needs to be done. We talk about things we had failed to discuss earlier. Even for an interview, he didn’t want to miss a detail.
You can hear our interview with Butch Jones, James Blackman and Kivon Bennett here.
Photo Credits: Sun Belt