Jude Kelly has plenty of stories about coaching Byron Jones during Jones’ high school career at St. Paul Catholic in Bristol, Conn.
He could talk about Jones essentially playing every down on offense, defense and special teams for the football team on the way to all-state honors.
He could recollect Jones winning the 200-meter race and the high jump in his first track meet. Heck, he could even relive the time Jones hurdled, instead of running through, a pep rally sign before his final basketball game.
“The cheerleaders were holding it up so you couldn’t see the kids,” Kelly said. “And, boom, here comes Byron, jumping over the banner without even touching it. Wow!”
But that isn’t even Kelly’s favorite story about Jones, the Dallas Cowboys’ first-round draft pick.
Kelly goes back to an annual school event in which the seniors and juniors play each other in a volleyball game.
“Byron’s junior year, a senior goes to spike the ball and Byron blocks it,” Kelly said. “The senior kid returns the block and Byron, who is still in the air, spikes it back. So just imagine how long he was in the air for. It’s pretty remarkable.
“That was one of my recruiting stories when Division I schools came by, but I had no idea he’d do what he did at the combine.”
Jones’ impressive showing at the annual NFL Scouting Combine helped put him on the first-round radar. Before that showing, Jones seemed to be more of an unknown because he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the middle of last season.
But Jones proved his worth at the combine. He had a record-breaking 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump, shattering the previous best of 11 feet, 7 inches. He also was the top performer among cornerbacks in the vertical jump (44 1/2 inches), 3-cone drill (6.78 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (3.94 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (10.98 seconds). His vertical jump was second overall behind Chris Conley’s 45 inches.
Jones, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 199 pounds, didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the combine. Instead, he ran it at UConn’s Pro Day and was clocked at 4.40 seconds. A few clocks had him at 4.37.
Clearly, showcasing his athleticism has never been an issue for Jones.
“I’ve had a couple kids who went on to play in the NFL, but I’ve never had a kid who stood out with so much athletic ability as Byron,” said Kelly, who has coached the high school ranks for 42 years and was among Jones’ guests at the draft in Chicago.
Given his impressive combine numbers, it’s easy to label Jones as a “workout warrior.” It’s typically viewed as a dubious distinction because it implies the player was drafted based on athletic ability, not game film.
But Jones is more than just a freak athlete in the Cowboys’ and analysts’ minds. He’s a versatile defensive back who can play cornerback or safety, and he has the ability to cover any type of receiver from the big and physical to the small and speedy.
“We drafted a football player who we really think plays the right way and has a chance to develop a couple different spots for us,” coach Jason Garrett said.
CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler agreed, saying the Cowboys’ “aced” their first-round selection by taking Jones.
“The elation in the Cowboys’ war room once the [Baltimore] Ravens didn’t take Jones at 26 says it all,” Brugler said. “His tape is terrific. He matches up with anyone. He’s not flawless, needs work on some technique issues and to better utilize his long arms, but he was a great value pick at No. 27.
“The ‘workout warrior’ label is fair, as long as it’s accompanied by ‘a player who impresses on tape as well.’”
Look no further than Jones’ game film from last season at Connecticut.
Jones tore the labrum in his left shoulder during preseason camp but managed to play through it early on. Not only did he show his toughness by that, he also still showed his ability.
UConn defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter distinctly remembers the South Florida game when Jones returned an interception 70 yards for a score.
“It was a shoestring catch and it really helped keep us in the game,” Poindexter said. “That kid did it all for us. He competed his tail off and really shut down one side of the field for us the whole season.”
Poindexter went on to compare Jones to someone he played with in college at Virginia — longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Ronde Barber.
“High-character, high athletic skill,” Poindexter said. “Just how each of them carry themselves in the building, a businesslike attitude. I think he’s going to do big things in Dallas. He was a no-brainer pick in my mind.”
That’s saying something, too, considering Poindexter only coached Jones for a season. Jones played under three head coaches and in three different defensive schemes in his college tenure.
Some might view that as a negative, but it reiterated to Jones the importance of versatility in the game — something that’s been ingrained in him since high school.
Jones was rated the ninth-best football recruit in Connecticut as a senior by Rivals.com. The 2-star wide receiver drew interest from Boston College, Syracuse, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Buffalo and Akron, but he stayed true to an early verbal commitment to UConn.
As a self-proclaimed old-school coach, Kelly loves that Jones doesn’t fit the typical mold of athletes nowadays. Most kids are groomed at one position, groomed at one sport, but Jones didn’t fall into that category.
Instead, he played both ways in football and participated in multiple sports, including team captain in basketball.
So be it.
“I’ve always been a fan of kids playing multiple sports, multiple positions,” Kelly said. “You’re going to be a much better defensive player if you know what the offensive players are doing. You learn the game more that way and you understand how the pieces of the puzzle all work together.”
Byron Jones fits Garrett’s “right kind of a guy” mantra better than anyone. During his introductory news conference, Jones even took a line out of Garrett’s playbook, saying he approaches life just to “win every day.”
Jones initially heard the phrase from his first college coach, Randy Edsall, and will surely hear it more often playing for Garrett.
But it’s hard not to root for someone like Jones. This is a guy who served an internship at the U.S. Capitol and comes from a strong family background with two brothers serving overseas in the military and another who is an electrical engineer.
Jones was chosen by the NFL as one of a few spokesmen to meet with young athletes during his trip to the draft, educating them and encouraging them to do things the right way.
Being held in that regard is special for Jones.
“Anytime you get to speak to kids and give them an idea of what it’s like to be on a college level and hopefully on an NFL level is awesome,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of lessons you learn that are applicable on the field, but more importantly to them outside of football and outside of athletics that you can apply to everyday life. So just trying to teach them and help them out and encourage them to stay on a good path.”
Position-wise, though, the Cowboys have shown finding elite cornerback talent is difficult. Morris Claiborne hasn’t panned out after being selected with the sixth overall pick in 2012, and Brandon Carr hasn’t produced as much as expected since signing a $50 million contract in the 2012 off-season.
But Jones, whose arms measure 32 inches and hands 10 inches, is his own person and player, and seems to have all the tools for a long, successful NFL career. He isn’t taking anything for granted early on, either.
Jones, who will wear jersey No. 31 for the Cowboys, approached the weekend’s rookie minicamp without any sense of entitlement, and he didn’t take too long to show his natural skills. He jumped high to snag a few balls during an interception drill and also jumped a route perfectly during another drill.
“For me, I’m going to perform my best regardless if I’m the last guy picked, the first guy picked, free agent or tryout guy,” Jones said. “I’m going to give it all I got. That’s all I know how to do.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
Byron Jones’ workout numbers
40-yard dash: 4.37-4.40 seconds
Vertical jump: 44.5 inches
Broad jump: 12 feet, 3 inches
3-cone drill: 6.78 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 3.94 seconds
60-yard shuttle: 10.98 seconds