When Nacogdoches product Brandon Jones committed to the Texas Longhorns in a nationally-televised ceremony on National Signing Day in 2016, the expectations were sky high — Jones was a consensus five-star prospect throughout most of the process and finished as the nation’s No. 1 safety, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Landing Jones was a huge coup for former head coach Charlie Strong, as Jones held offers from nearly 40 programs and was considered enough of a lean to Texas A&M that TexAgs made a documentary about his senior season in the hope that it would be a hit when he ended up in College Station.
Instead, Jones pulled a Longhorns hat out of his bag and prepared to head to Austin, even though he’d told Strong late the night before that he wasn’t sure what choice he was going to make.
“It was important for us to get out into East Texas, and to go into East Texas and get us one,” Strong said that day. “He is going to be a really unbelievable player for us.”
However, the first two seasons for Jones didn’t quite go as planned.
There were flashes as a freshman, as Jones blocked punts in two consecutive games — becoming the fourth player in school history to do so — but faltered during his only start against Oklahoma State to start conference play. Ultimately, he only made 16 tackles as a back up.
Following the graduation of Dylan Haines, Jones had an opportunity to move into the starting lineup and secured a job next to breakout junior DeShon Elliott. Against West Virginia, Jones ranged towards the pylon to force a fumble by star quarterback Will Grier and knock him out of the game with a dislocated finger. Texas took over after the ball went over the side of the end zone to provide a turning point in the game that made the Longhorns bowl eligible.
Jones finished third on the team with 61 tackles, including four stops behind the line of scrimmage, while adding two pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, and forced fumble.
Still, there was more to unlock in his game — Jones struggled at times tackling in the open field, took some bad angles, and didn’t come up with a single interception.
During the spring, Jones started to make the leap.
“To me, Brandon has been exceptional,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “I don’t usually bring that word up. You guys hear me talk and I probably do that a handful of times, but he’s had an unbelievable spring.
“He’s playing like what he was advertised as an athlete. I think last year there was some hesitation, some things that he wasn’t really sure about himself, now he’s doing it. You can see his big speed.”
The tackling ability of Jones was a major area of improvement, according to Orlando, who said that he was “unbelievably impressed” with that area of the game for Jones.
The 6’0, 205-pounder was on a mission — Jones tweeted in July that he had “so much to prove this year.”
So far, so good through four games, even though Jones suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener against Maryland and missed the Tulsa game.
The hesitation is gone from his game. The missed tackles have decreased. He had two extremely impressive punt returns against the Terrapins that featured multiple missed tackles. In short, Jones is living up to his potential in his third season on the Forty Acres, and that potential is significant.
Jones is also playing a big role in the defense, as Orlando said last week that his safeties are two of the most important players in his scheme, along with the two inside linebackers.
“Brandon, I’ve said this since camp, is probably our most valuable guy because of what he has do and all the plays he’s making,” Orlando said on Wednesday.
One of the biggest was his fourth-down tackle on the goal line against USC with the Trojans attempting to extend a 14-13 lead in the second quarter. When running back Stephen Carr tried to bounce the ball outside to pick up the first down or find the end zone, Jones took the perfect angle and turned on his speed to send Carr crashing out of bounds.
Two plays earlier, Jones had arrived in the corner of the end zone just in time to help senior cornerback Davante Davis by breaking up a would-be touchdown pass.
Still, Jones hadn’t quite put everything together on that drive — USC was threatening on that possession because star freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown had just caught a 47-yard pass over Jones on a post route in one-on-one coverage. Jones undercut the route at the last second, but mistimed his jump and was unable to even deflect the pass.
Given that Jones was in his 15th game as a starter at that point and hadn’t come up with an interception, that play only exacerbated concerns about his ball skills.
When Burnt Orange Nation asked Orlando about how Jones plays the ball in practice, the Longhorns defensive coordinator said that “he’s good,” but pointed out how far and how fast Jones often has to range in coverage to make plays.
“He runs 22 miles per hour when he’s got pads on. So, you know, we’ll continue to work with him on that stuff, but I think that eventually he’ll turn into what Caden [Sterns] is doing and some of the ball skills, so that’s just practice stuff. But I’m telling you, there’s some times he’s running so fast that he kind of misjudges balls.”
Against TCU last weekend, Jones at least managed to put himself in the right spot at the right time, intercepting the first pass of his career in the second half when Horned Frogs quarterback Shawn Robinson inexplicably threw the ball right to Jones. If Robinson had hit his target, it would have been a touchdown and the game might have gone differently.
Instead, Texas was able to grab some momentum, especially after Jones was once again in the right spot to recover a subsequent fumble by Robinson forced by sophomore defensive end Marqez Bimage.
All told, Jones has 29 tackles through three games to lead the team, evidence that he’s taking much better angles and not missing opportunities. His three tackles for loss are third among all Longhorns defenders and close to matching his career total of four entering the season.
Hardly unexpected, given the expectations that accompanied Jones from East Texas to the Forty Acres, but exactly what the Longhorns needed this season after losing Elliott to the NFL.
And though Strong is no longer around to see the growth of Jones, it’s clear that he’s now the unbelievable player Strong said he’d become 138 weeks ago.