Perhaps the hype was always a little bit unfair.
Long considered a consensus five-star prospect and ultimately ranked as the nation’s No. 1 safety in the 2016 recruiting class, Texas Longhorns safety Brandon Jones committed on National Signing Day to end a high-profile recruitment with heightened stakes since he was the subject of a TexAgs documentary chronicling that difficult process.
When Jones pulled a Longhorns hat out of his bag to spurn the Aggies, it was one highlight in a remarkable day for Charlie Strong and his Texas program.
To compare the career that Jones built for himself in Austin to the failures of Strong isn’t fair, either — Jones became a three-year starter and led the team in tackles as a senior while Strong flamed out before the ink on Jones’ National Letter of Intent was dry for a year.
While Jones ultimately revealed himself as a flawed player with the Horns, he did showcase some NFL-quality skills while maintaining his reputation as a tough player who does things right off the field.
Let’s start off with the toughness. Under head coach Tom Herman, Texas has typically had offensive linemen quickly undergo surgery to repair high ankle sprains in an attempt to ensure full ligament recovery. For skill position players, the ask is more significant, leading Jones to play through multiple ankle injuries as a junior that forced him to miss four games. As a senior, Jones required labrum surgery over the season.
Unable to work out at the NFL Combine, Jones prepared in a novel way — by watching film of every defensive play for all 32 NFL teams.
“I knew I had a lot to prove after missing the Senior Bowl and now the combine, and I wanted to do something other than rehab to build the mental side of my game and show what I can do mentally,” Jones told Bleacher Report. “I learned it’s a lot of fun to break down film. Whether or not it helps my draft stock, I know it’ll help my acclimation to the NFL because I have a better understanding of what teams are doing.”
The preparation through a process that didn’t end up including a Pro Day at Texas to show off his speed and agility, but Jones has other intangible qualities, too, like his willingness to strike up a friendship with an amputee.
Labrum surgery kept Jones from showcasing his athleticism in Indianapolis or Austin, but there is public evidence of this athleticism from high school — Jones ran a strong 4.56 40-yard dash at The Opening while adding a 34-inch vertical and 4.35 shuttle.
At Texas, Jones was at his best coming downhill to finish plays are a sure tackler or using his sideline-to-sideline speed to make plays on the perimeter. His fourth-down stop at the goal line against USC in 2018 was perhaps his most iconic play in a Texas uniform, but wasn’t the only example of his ability to keep opponents from taking the edge against him.
2018 USC game was not his best showing but pretty good pursuit here by Brandon Jones on the toss play... Saves a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/0owzeJsfwz— Derrick (@derrick_daKidD) March 16, 2020
Of the 232 tackles logged by sports-reference.com for Jones, 75 percent of them were solo. In an era where open-field tackling can often represent the margin because success and failure, Jones was arguably the best on the back end for the Longhorns.
After playing the nickel position in 2019 due to need, Jones has film of playing every safety alignment, four career interceptions, and two blocked punts as a freshman in addition to the performance of other special teams duties for Texas.
Unfortunately, the Nacogdoches product hasn’t always excelled in coverage — his ball skills are questionable, a failure that former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando excused to due to the speed of Jones, and his technique and reactive ability are not ideal, as evidenced by the relatively thin splits between his agility testing and straight-line speed. When Jones had to make difficult plays on the football in college, he was often beat by receivers with better ball skills. His interceptions relied on massive breakdowns by opposing quarterbacks.
Those are deficits that are impossible to hide in the Big 12 and increasingly difficult to cover up in the NFL.
Jones still projects as a mid-round draft pick with the capability to contribute immediately on special teams, but the issues in man coverage and his frame limitations at 5’11 and 198 maxed-out pounds keep Jones from projecting as a Day 1 or Day 2 pick.