For the first time in several years, the Texas Longhorns were able to land an absolutely elite in-state safety, as Nacogdoches star Brandon Jones chose the Texas Longhorns over the Baylor Bears and Texas A&M Aggies in a National Signing Day announcement on ESPNU.
A Monday release of those three finalists was hardly surprising, as Jones was high on the Aggies throughout most of the process and grew up a Longhorns fan. Baylor was the darkhorse, with head coach Art Briles making the two traditional recruiting rivals a little bit uncomfortable in the final minutes of the 2016 cycle after Jones traveled to Waco for an official visit last weekend.
In the aftermath of Texas head coach Charlie Strong's arrival in Austin, the Aggies were the leader for Jones, who hails from a town that skews maroon and white at a time when Texas A&M had all the in-state recruiting momentum, especially in Houston and East Texas. The proximity to College Station also made it easy for to make the two-hour drive into Aggieland.
However, once the 5'11, 193-pounder started to get out and see more of what was available around college football, A&M fell out of the leadership position, even as out-of-state schools failed to draw serious consideration. Arkansas received a recent official visit and Jones also took a paid fall trip to Ole Miss, but never challenged for his signature at any point.
After hiring East Texas native and former Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor, the Longhorns slowly started to make progress, though Jones only visited twice during 2015 -- once during May and again in November for the big visit day against Kansas to take in that blowout.
In the end, it was probably the instability in the Texas A&M program that helped Texas gain a lot of ground in a short period of time, as December marked the first surge in 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions to the Longhorns. By the time that Jones joined the other big visit weekend of the cycle with 19 other prospects on January 15, Strong and his staff weren't exactly seen as a wide leader, but as sitting in an extremely favorable position.
And despite little industry consensus on where Jones was leaning in the final moments, Texas won out.
Jones will likely be joined by Alief Elsik safety Chris Brown in a short period of time to make up the positional takes for Strong this year and represents a huge coup, not only in the recent history of recruiting the last line of defense, but also because the state of Texas was home to the top three safeties in the country and Jones was the only one who ever seriously considered playing in the Big 12.
A consensus four-star prospect, Jones is the No. 40 prospect nationally, the No. 1 safety, and the No. 6 player in the state of Texas, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. He held nearly 40 offers during his recruitment, a who's who of national programs that coveted the versatile East Texas product.
Here's the evaluation from ESPN ($):
Has very good measurables and looks to have more physical growth left on his frame. Plays bigger than his vitals would indicate on film; an explosive defender with a lot of pop on contact. Runs really well covering a lot of ground from his centerfield position. Range to make plays in all three levels of the defense.
Not always technically sound but consistently puts himself into position to make plays. Times his break well in deep half coverage and also takes sharp angles to ball on run support. Quick to get off the mark when reading run action.
Most adept as a zone defender. Shows the ability to get off the hash and on top of routes. Displays good initial burst out of his break and takes the right angle on the ball. Tracking and closing ability when ball is in the air are at a very high level. Needs to work his man-to-man skills but has the hips and recovery speed to develop this area.
An excellent run supporting safety. Quick to make his reads and get downhill with sharp angles and very little wasted motion to the ball carrier. Strong plant and drive burst when he has the running back lined up. Keeps proper leverage on the ball and makes explosive contact. Strong wrap up tackler who drives through and knocks ball carriers back.
Jones was injured most of junior season but when healthy he is arguably the most well-rounded safety in this class. A run and hit type with great athleticism and instincts. A potential interchangeable safety but feel he may have the most upside at strong with continued physical development.
STRENGTHS: Jones is an aggressive safety, who is highly productive vs. the run but also has the speed to cover slot receivers. When Jones reads run, he comes downhill quickly and is a strong wrap up tackler. A very good zone coverage defender, who reads the quarterback well and understands route concepts. Closes fast. ... AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Has the athleticism and speed to play man-to-man coverage but he just needs more experience and would benefit from more polish. Will need to add strength to his frame as a college box player. ... BOTTOM LINE: Jones is a defender who can do it all. And with more experience in man-to-man coverage, he should become a polished all-around safety.
The Texas coaches clearly trust senior Dylan Haines and sophomores like PJ Locke and DeShon Elliott are set to make a move on junior Jason Hall this spring if he doesn't show improvement, but Jones just feels like the type of guy who could come in and contribute immediately. Perhaps that's a perspective enhanced by the glow of a big National Signing Day commitment. Or perhaps Jones is just that good. The rankings believe so.
Elliott improved his all-around ability as a senior and has high upside, while Locke flashed at times, but none of the safeties at Texas have the well-roundedness of Jones' skill set with his ability to cover ground and be a punisher against the run or pass. With the Longhorns playing a fair amount of zone recently, a lack of man-to-man skills wouldn't necessarily bury Jones on the depth chart with a quickness. And he'll grow there quickly because he's talented and Texas has three good defensive backs coaches.
So, you know, just don't underestimate the kid.
Jones is the No. 19 commit for Texas and the third already on National Signing Day. The group now ranks No. 17 in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings and is quickly closing in on Baylor's top-ranked Big 12 recruiting class.