Jones: Alabama's well-rounded nerd

Thayer Evans previews the LSU-Alabama matchup.
Thayer Evans previews the LSU-Alabama matchup.
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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.


Barrett Jones is a nerd, at least by football standards.

The Alabama redshirt junior left tackle is so talented at the violin that he can play what people hum. He has such a large vocabulary he once finished 15th in his age group in a national Scrabble tournament in Boston.

He is also smart enough in the classroom that he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in accounting in just three years with a 4.0 grade-point average and is working on his master’s degree while preparing for the CPA test in April.

“He’s a good nerd to be around,” Alabama running back Trent Richardson says.

Yet the 6-foot-5, 311-pound Jones has another reputation for No. 2 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) entering its colossal home game Saturday night against top-ranked LSU (8-0, 5-0). It’s one that is surprising on a Crimson Tide team stocked with future NFL players

“Barrett is probably the most valuable player on the team,” Richardson says. “That’s one person I love to run behind.”

Jones is invaluable because of his versatility on Alabama’s offensive line. He still starts at left tackle, but he has also played every position on the line this season, except right guard, a position at which he started when Alabama won the national championship in 2009.

“He’s everywhere,” LSU coach Les Miles says. “He’s a very bright, capable guy.”

Raised in Germantown, Tenn., an affluent suburb of Memphis, Jones’ ability to learn to play all over the offensive line traces back to his always wanting to know how everything worked. As a child, he used to ask his parents countless daily questions.

When his parents met with his teacher in third grade for a conference, she told them, “I think I’m going to have to hire an assistant just to answer Barrett’s questions. He wants to know why and how everything works.”

Barrett’s curiousness also translated well to music. He started playing the violin at age 3 and practiced daily.

When he was 5, he started playing at nursing homes for hours at a time as part of a Christian ministry. His compassion for the elderly shone through in his music.

He left them with smiles on their faces and even moved some to tears.

“He was just sharing the love he had,” says his father, Rex Jones, who played basketball at Alabama from 1981 to 1984 under then-Crimson Tide coach Wimp Sanderson.

Because Jones’ father wouldn’t let him play football until sixth grade, Barrett poured himself into playing the violin and got so good at it that he started performing at weddings to make extra money.

“He had a natural gifting for it,” the elder Jones says. “If you could hum it, he could play it.”

Originally, the elder Jones had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps in basketball, but in fourth grade, Barrett went an entire season without scoring a single point. Yet when Jones finally started playing football in sixth grade as a linebacker, his passion for the sport was obvious.

He loved the hitting and once broke his arm while diving and blocking an extra point.

Other bigger changes were still to come. When Jones started seventh grade, he was 5-foot-7, 170 pounds and wore a size-9 shoe.

But just a month after getting a new pair of shoes for the school year, he told his father he needed another pair.

“My shoes are too small,” the elder Jones recalls his son telling him.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Trent Richardson (3): "Barrett (75) is probably the most valuable player on the team."

Al Messerschmidt

That was the start of four straight months in which Jones had to get new pairs of shoes as part of a massive growth spurt. He also had to constantly get new pairs of jeans to cover his exposed ankles.

Over the course of a year, Jones sprouted eight inches. At the start of eighth grade, he was 6-3 and 200 pounds with a size-15 shoe.

“He just exploded,” the elder Jones says.

During Jones’ eighth-grade year, a teacher introduced him to Scrabble. A club dedicated to the game was born, and Jones went to school twice a week at 6:30 a.m. to practice.

He even started studying books to memorize all the two-letter words, those that start with "Q" and seven-letter words that save tiles. It all finally paid off that year with Jones and his partner’s 15th-place finish in their age group at a national Scrabble tournament in Boston.

“I’ve played some really big words,” Jones says. “Ones worth over 150 points.”

While in eighth grade, Jones broke one of his fingers playing football. When he got home, he told his mother, Leslie, he didn’t think he could practice the violin that day.

At the time, Jones was taking lessons for two hours a week and practicing for an hour daily. She looked at his swollen, mangled finger and told him, “I guess you can take a day off.”

One day turned into two, then three, before Jones decided to give up the violin to concentrate on football.

“It’s too bad, because he could really play,” his father says.

In high school, Jones attended Evangelical Christian School in Memphis. As a freshman, he played defensive end for the school’s varsity.

That season, Evangelical Christian made the state championship game against Briarcrest Christian School, which had a humongous 6-5, 360-pound senior left tackle named Michael Oher, who now plays for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. When Jones entered the game midway through the first quarter, he lined up on the right edge against Oher, who at the time outweighed Jones by 130 pounds.

Jones got around Oher the first time; the second time, Jones made a tackle for a loss. But the third time, Oher drove Jones across the field, flung the youngster to the ground and lay on him.

“It was man against boy,” Rex Jones says. “It wasn’t dirty. He just decided he wasn’t going to let this little snot-nosed kid run around him.”

Jones’ experience against Oher, however, motivated him. It made him want to become a better football player.

“That really flipped the switch for Barrett to really want to do all the things he needed to excel,” the elder Jones says.

After Jones’ freshman year at Evangelical Christian, he gave up AAU basketball tournaments across the country to focus on football but still played for his high school.

“Barrett isn’t the most talented guy in the world, but he has a competitive drive that is second to none,” his father says. “Whatever you give him to compete at, that’s what he loves to do.”

Jones was raised as an Alabama fan, but when the then-left tackle started getting bombarded with scholarship offers from schools like Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, the Crimson Tide was struggling to win consistently under then-coach Mike Shula. Jones’ father and Shula are friends from their days together at Alabama.

But Tide coach Nick Saban, who was hired after Shula was fired at the end of the 2006 season, made quite an impression on Jones. After they talked during an unofficial visit in November 2007, Jones committed to Alabama.

“This is where I want to go,” Rex Jones recalls his son saying. “That is who I want to play for. There’s no question about it.”

Saban never made any promises to Jones. He played in three games his freshman year before tearing his right labrum and received a medical redshirt after his surgery in December 2008.

Jones’ rehabilitation was supposed to last four months and keep him out of spring practice. But he worked so hard he was cleared in three months and able to participate in spring ball.

He started off at fourth-string left tackle and moved up to backup by the end of spring practice.

During the first week of preseason practice in 2009, then-Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry needed someone to go in at right guard and turned to Jones.

“Barrett, I have no clue if you’re going to be able to do this, but I need someone who knows where they’re going to be every play,” the elder Jones recalls his son telling him about the moment. “I want you to get in there and play.”

Ever since then, Jones has been a starter on Alabama’s offensive line. That season, he started every game at right guard as the Crimson Tide rolled to an undefeated season and national championship.

Last season, Jones was also the starter at right guard. When Alabama wasn’t getting the play it wanted at left tackle this past spring, Jones was moved to that spot.

“If I’m going to learn the position and you need me here, I’ll do whatever it takes for us to win football games,” Jones told the Alabama coaches.

Jones’ inquisitive nature has made his moving around on the offensive line seamless.

“'I don’t want to know what to do, I want to know why I’m doing what I’m doing,'” the elder Jones frequently recalls his son telling him. “'Once I understand why I’m doing it, then it’s easy for me to know what to do.'”

Jones’ compassion for people — a trait he discovered he had as a youth — is still a significant aspect of his life. He has twice been on mission trips to earthquake-ravaged Haiti and once to Honduras.

He is also active in mission work in Memphis with his church, Bellevue Baptist.

During the trips to Haiti, Jones helps at an orphanage in the village of Guitton. The first time he went was shortly after last year’s earthquake.

He helped build showers for the orphans, many of whom had lost their families in the disaster. But he mainly spent time with them.

“A lot of the kids just need to be touched and loved on,” says Jones, whose brother, Harrison, is a redshirt freshman tight end for Alabama. “That’s a big part of it. Just showing those kids that you care and love them.”

During Jones’ second trip to Haiti, he helped rebuild a school’s classrooms as well as build a basketball court and playground. Because of Jones’ size, kids flock to him naturally.

In August, Jones’ father went back to Haiti without him. The first question all the kids at the orphanage asked was, “Where is your big son?”

“He just connects with people, even those who don’t speak English,” Rex Jones says. “It’s a God-given thing that I can’t explain. It’s out of God’s grace, I’m telling you.”

In March, Jones is going to go on another mission trip to Honduras, this time with about 30 of his friends. The last time he visited, he and his father went with a chaperone to a prison in the capital city of Tegucigalpa filled with the country’s most violent prisoners, many of whom are gang members.

It was so dangerous the guards wouldn’t go inside, the elder Jones says. But he and Jones went inside with the chaperone.

“You know the danger you could potentially be in,” Rex Jones says.

Yet, once inside the prison, the gang members warmed to Jones.

“I watched Barrett go into that place and hug and love on these prisoners,” the elder Jones says. “Those people respond to love just like anybody else.”

Jones’ compassion for people is similar to his passion for accounting. He can tell you everything Enron did wrong and about the impact of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act.

“It’s kind of the language of business,” Jones says of accounting. “That’s really why I like it. You learn so much about how business works. I really love business.”

Alabama walk-on wide receiver Hardie Buck, Jones’ roommate, says he and others call Jones “The Fountain,” as in the fountain of knowledge. But Jones disputes Richardson’s description of him as a nerd.

“I like to see myself as well-rounded,” Jones says.

And as valuable as Jones is to Alabama, that’s spoken like a true nerd.

Tagged: Alabama, Memphis, Trent Richardson, Barrett Jones

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