NCCU rookie CB picking 'em off as he's picking it up

Oct. 17, 2013 @ 10:29 PM

N.C. Central cornerback Michael Jones is what’s known in sports as a baller.

The kid can play.

In six career games, Jones has intercepted four passes, making him one of the top ball thieves in the Football Championship Subdivision of NCAA Division I.

Jones is one of 20 candidates up for the 2013 Jerry Rice Award that recognizes the top first-year FCS player.

Rice, a retired National Football League wide receiver known for his heroics with the San Francisco 49ers, played in the FCS with Mississippi Valley State when the FCS was known as Division I-AA.

No defensive back in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has as many interceptions as Jones, although he has yet to pick off a pass in the Eagles’ two league games.

Jones leads the MEAC with 10 passes defended and has made 21 tackles.

Underscoring all that production is college football basically being brand-new to the true freshman from Baltimore.

“We think he’s got a huge, huge, huge upside ahead of him,” NCCU interim coach Dwayne Foster said.

That kid is sneaky, Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley said: “Great football awareness in his coverages.”

Morgan State and NCCU will get after it at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on Saturday (2 p.m., NCCUEaglePride.com).

Morgan State is in Baltimore but didn’t pursue Jones. At the time, the Bears at the time had a shortage of coaches on the recruiting trail, Morgan State media relations director Leonard Haynes said.

NCCU (3-3, 1-1 MEAC) snatched Jones up, counting on him to play right away. He’s had his struggles but has been receptive to coaching and has come up big for the Eagles.

“He is a freshman and has had some freshmen mistakes,” Foster said. “So although he’s made some big plays, there’ve been some times when he hasn’t been in the right place.”

Jones was having a bad day during NCCU’s Sept.7 game against Saint Augustine’s, just his second collegiate contest.

“He was actually struggling quite a big throughout the course of that game, had gotten beat on a couple of occasions,” Foster said. “We just kept talking to him as he came to the sideline about picking his play up and the like and he just accepted that challenge.”

In double overtime against Saint Augustine’s, Jones intercepted a pass that killed a Falcons’ drive, setting up Oleg Parent’s winning field goal.

“He hasn’t looked back,” Foster said.

NCCU defensive backs coach Andre George, who once played in the Eagles’ secondary himself, said he tries to get his young players to understand that they’re still involved with the same game in college that they’ve been playing since they were 5 and 6 years old.

That approach only goes so far, though, Hill-Eley said.

Morgan State (1-5, 1-1 MEAC) has some young players on its offensive line who needed time to adjust to the college game, Hill-Eley said.

A freshman lineman in college, for example, who had been a dominating aggressor against 250-pound high school boys could all of a sudden find himself staring at a 6-foot-7-inch, 300-pound man, Hill-Eley said. It’s not that the college freshman can’t block the bigger, more-experienced guy, but it tends to require a feeling-out period, Hill-Eley said.

“It may take you a couple of bull rushes to get used to it,” Hill-Eley said. “It’s a grown man’s game.”

Hill-Eley was talking in particular about linemen working in the trenches.

“In certain positions, it’s a learning curve,” Hill-Eley said. “You’re talking about a (defensive back) that may get hit or may serve a hit 15 plays a game. I’m talking about an (offensive lineman) that if he plays 70 plays, he’s going to get hit 70 plays.”