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Charlie Strong isn’t afraid to play freshman Texas S Brandon Jones

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Athletic ability matters. And Jones has it in spades, in addition to a number of other positive qualities.

Brandon Jones
ESPN

Will the nation’s No. 1 safety see the field early and often for the Texas Longhorns this fall? At Big 12 Media Days this week, head coach Charlie Strong indicated that freshman Brandon Jones will have an excellent chance of contributing because of one big factor.

“When you talk about skill guys, skill guys are skill guys, because it’s athletic ability and athletic ability,” Strong said. “Brandon has tremendous athletic ability and he’s done a good job since he’s been here this summer.”

In fact, that athleticism — which includes the ability to run a 4.56 40-yard dash, 4.35 shuttle, and post a 34-inch vertical leap last year — was enough to earn Jones a recent win in the lightweight division of the so-called “Battle for the Belts” conditioning challenge.

And Strong was willing to give plenty of playing time to freshmen defensive backs Holton Hill, Davante Davis, and Kris Boyd last season, so he’s sincere in the previous statement. As a result, he isn’t worried about sending Jones out there, either, with a caveat.

“You’re not afraid of that because you’ve seen a lot of freshmen defensive backs,” Strong said. “The best player is going to play if they work hard enough and get that opportunity.”

The high expectations for Jones from Strong date back to National Signing Day, when the ‘Horns were able to pull the 5’11, 192-pounder away from the Aggies in a big East Texas victory.

"You look at him coming out of Nacogdoches," Strong said. "It was important for us to get out into East Texas, and to go into East Texas and get us one. He is going to be a really unbelievable player for us."

Since "unbelievable" is the go-to superlative for Strong when discussing any subject, it's not always the most precise word for him. But Jones truly has a chance to be an unbelievable player for the Longhorns -- he possesses a rare combination of poise, the mental and emotional makeup to succeed, the drive to continuously strive to improve, and the physical skills that make such lofty projections possible.

In high school, the production and playmaking ability certainly was there for Jones.

As a senior, Jones returned to his sophomore form after battling through injuries as a junior, notching 124 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. Is Jones the deep safety to serve as the last line of defense and ballhawk on deep passes with his sensational range or the in-box safety capable of blowing up screen passes and running plays near the line of scrimmage? The answer may actually be both.

But working hard to see the field doesn’t just entail excellent conditioning for Jones, either, as defensive coordinator Vance Bedford mentioned pre-snap alignment as a major deficiency of junior Jason Hall and sophomore DeShon Elliott last season, the primary competition for Jones.

If Jones can spend enough time learning from senior Dylan Haines, who helped Hall in that regard last season and likely would have helped Elliott had he played more often, then he can increase his chance of playing early, as Strong and Bedford tend to be a little more cautious with safeties than with cornerbacks since they are the last line of defense.

Displacing Haines may be difficult, because of the trust level the coaches have for him, but Hall and Elliott are on notice and it’s certainly possible that the Nacogdoches product could steal some snaps from the senior leader if he can quickly grasp the defense.

Since Jones is the highest-rated safety the ‘Horns have landed since Drew Kelson in 2004 and was the highest-rated commit in the class before the addition of No. 36 prospect Devin Duvernay, was a historic addition for Texas.

Here’s guessing that Jones doesn’t need long to prove he deserved that ranking.