TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — January is a month that college coaches typically use to solidify the commitments of high school and junior college prospects for the fall.
But the biggest commitments often come when a junior decides to stay in school for his senior season.
Florida State’s defense looks a lot better in 2013 after leading tackler Christian Jones decided he will return to school and not enter the NFL Draft. The deadline for draft-eligible players to decide is Tuesday.
Jones, Florida State’s weak-side linebacker, led the team with 95 tackles. He had at least nine tackles in five of the Seminoles’ final six games and is a versatile player who is both a capable run-stopper while also able to drop into coverage.
The native of Winter Park had 10 tackles in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. He said after the game that he was going to take time to make his decision.
“A lot of guys the past couple of years have helped to turn the program around, and I want to continue to be a part of that process,” Jones said. “I’ve always talked with some of the guys I came in with, and we’ve always talked about finishing together and that’s also something I wanted to do.”
Jones has 27 starts at Florida State under his belt, and the defense can use not only his play at linebacker but also his leadership. His return solidifies a corps of linebackers that loses seniors such as Vince Williams (59 tackles) and Nick Moody (20 tackles).
Now Jones will anchor a group that includes middle linebacker Telvin Smith, who had 64 tackles in 2012 despite not starting a game. The third linebacking spot is up for grabs but could go to Reggie Northrup, Ukeme Eligwe or Karlos Williams, who may move up from his safety spot.
Jones was considered a middle-round pick in April’s draft if he left after his junior season. For a player who was once a five-star prospect and one of the prizes of the class of 2010, leaving early in the hopes of being taken somewhere in the third, fourth or fifth round wasn’t appealing.
Jones is a good linebacker. But is he good enough to separate himself from the pack of linebackers in the 2013 draft? Odds are he would have blended in at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he would not have had the benefit of participating in a showcase all-star game such as the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game.
Now Jones returns to school, where he can complete his degree in sport management, anchor the Florida State defense in the fall and strengthen his NFL resume.
“This is the best decision for me and my family,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to coming back, working hard, improving my game, but also helping Florida State continue with the success we’ve had.”
Jones has been part of a Florida State defense that allowed an average of just 15.1 points per game in 2011 (fourth nationally) and 14.7 in 2012 (sixth). The Seminoles allowed an average of 254 yards per game last year, second only in the Football Bowl Subdivision to national champion Alabama.
But Florida State has plenty of holes to fill up front after losing all four starting defensive linemen, including All-American end Bjoern Werner and All-ACC end Cornellius “Tank” Carradine. Senior tackles Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud are also moving on.
So Florida State needed a player like Jones — someone who could make up for what will be a year of transition up front. Florida State has backups with experience, especially tackles such as Timmy Jernigan, Demonte McAllister, Eddie Goldman and Jacobbi McDaniel, who returns after missing all of 2012 with an ankle injury.
Depth is not a concern in the secondary, where Florida State loses just one starter after defensive back Xavier Rhodes departs after his junior season. Safety Lamarcus Joyner opted to return, leading a group that includes freshman All-American Ronald Darby, Nick Waisome, Terrence Brooks and Tyler Hunter.
Florida State will open this fall with seven new starters on defense and a new coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt. Those are a lot of adjustments for a team.
But Florida State has the talent to fill those gaps. And Jones’ commitment certainly helps.
“I think his decision shows great commitment to FSU and great commitment to his future,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.