Four cycles in a passing drill altered Melvin Jones’ future.
His snaring passes flicked at him during a drill on the first day of fall camp tipped off the LSU coaching staff. So did the smooth and quick cut upfield after passes settled into his soft hands.
Wooed to Baton Rouge as a linebacker, the Lake Charles native stepped into coach Les Miles’ office to learn his time at the position didn’t last a day.
“Melvin, I think we’ve got a better spot for you,” Miles said.
Eight months later, Jones is the heir apparent to a man nicknamed “Bone Saw,” blowing open holes at fullback during the Tigers’ spring workouts. The Washington-Marion product fits the template of a blue-collar worker — a persona he’s happy to adopt.
“I didn’t look at it as a discouragement,” he said Tuesday. “I looked at it as a challenge.”
In LSU’s offense, there’s a distinct pride in playing a position endangered by the boom of spread and hurry-up systems across college football. Neighbors, boasting that easy-going manner and love for sticking his hat into defenders, needed an understudy.
Jones didn’t arrive as a walk-on and scout-team member like Neighbors did. There were offers from Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Nebraska. In his own mind, Jones saw himself working at inside linebacker.
So what does a position switch, on the first day of practice no less, do to a guy? Backfieldmate Terrence Magee, who has been shuffled between wide receiver and running back, easily explains the anxiety.
“You wonder if there’s a spot for you on this team,” he said. “Some guys can let that get in their head, and you don’t know what might start coming up. Should I be here? Do I need to transfer?”
Yet Jones, who is 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, sensed he would learn his position once he moved into his dorm room.
“It had crossed my mind,” he said. “Every school that came and talked to me was undecided about where to put me.”
Neighbors, who is now on scholarship, said the designation — filled with brain-rattling hits but few touches — isn’t easy to adopt.
Spending a year under the tutelage of Neighbors, too, has helped Jones learn how to read down linemen, use his quick feet and get skinny in a hole before clearing it out.
“Who’s going out? Who’s going in? Things like that,” Jones said. “It can be hard to catch on to when you come in and you’re new to the position. Over the past year, I’ve caught on.”
There’s also a mentally, finding pleasure in thumping the opposition, that took root inside the running backs meeting room.
“It’s just the want to,” Neighbors said, echoing Miles. “Bend knees, break jaws.”
Jones can do that. No problem. But there’s a bonus: those hands.
Last season, LSU threw to Neighbors and fellow fullback J.C. Copeland 11 times for 123 yards, mostly on wheel and flat routes when the sawed-off blockers leaked out, snagged a throw and rumbled.
“I can catch and run a little bit better,” he said. “I’m not saying they can’t, but I just feel that’s a plus I have on my side.”
Every offseason, the same question arises: How much will the Tigers’ pro-style offense involve tight ends and running backs in the passing game? Last year, well, who cared? Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry teamed for 2,345 yards and 18 touchdowns on 136 catches.
Now the Tigers’ receiving corps is rebuilding. Two of the key pieces, recruits Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre, don’t arrive until August. And having other options for their young quarterbacks is handy.
“I get a few passes and a few little flat routes,” Jones said. “You can switch it up with me.”
But that much Jones already knew, and Magee offered a reminder of his chief task.
“This is still old-school,” he said. “We need guys that can be in those trenches, too.”