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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 02 East-West Shrine Bowl

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Journey of a Prospect: How Ball State CB Nic Jones became a rapid riser for the 2023 NFL Draft

Ball State CB Nic Jones didn’t become a full-time starter until 2021. But the Combine invite and East-West Shrine Game star is now raising eyebrows on draft boards.

Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A Cardinal rises

Later this week, there may be a moment when an individual arrives at a podium in Kansas City, Missouri and declares the selection of Ball State cornerback Nic Jones to the football universe.

But eight months ago, the words “NFL Draft selection” may not have been most closely associated with the Detroit native, as Jones had yet to complete a full season as a collegiate starter. When Jones first arrived to campus in Muncie, Indiana, there was already a litany of established talent options within the secondary.

Eventual first-team All-MAC selections like Bryce Cosby and Antonio Phillips occupied several key positions in the defensive backfield, situating Jones as a rotating nickelback in his first two seasons with Ball State. Still, while operating in a reserve role, Jones acknowledged there was widespread belief in his untapped potential.

“With the guys around campus and the coaches with the program, it was kind of always a known thing,” Jones said. “I’m not gonna say that I would eventually be drafted, but it was a known thing from the time I got there that, ‘He’s special.’ It was more so just a matter of time.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Illinois at Ball State
Nic Jones intercepted a pass in the 2021 season opener — launching his first season as a full-time starting cornerback.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021 offseason saw the graduation of cornerback Antonio Phillips, an established ballhawk who picked off eight passes in a three-year span as a two-time all-conference honoree. That sudden vacancy created room in the starting lineup for an eager Jones, ready to manufacture that professional career he dreamed of as a young reserve cornerback in 2019 and 2020.

“I was less ready than I thought I was, and I probably wasn’t aware of that until my junior year,” Jones said. “Really, it was a coaching change. We brought in corner coach Vic Hall going into my junior year and he just helped me round out my game and fill in the holes that I had left. That’s when it started to become more realistic that I could play at the next level.”

Opportunity and execution coincided in the fall of 2021 when Jones was elevated to full-time starting cornerback status. He didn't even wait a full game before recording his first interception in his new role, and he rounded out the month of September with several impressive individual performances — but all that progress came to a sudden halt when Jones tore his LCL in early October and missed the remainder of the season.

The opportunity he patiently waited two years for suddenly diminished.

Although he received an extra year of eligibility from the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, Jones felt time was running out to prove NFL worthiness. After all, his career was limited to nine starts — two in 2019, one in 2020, and six in 2021. On top of that, he was faced with overcoming an injury and learning how to run and cut at a high level again.

“The hardest part wasn’t the physical development,” Jones said regarding the recovery process. “It was the mental maturation. I had to slow down. I put a clock on my college career for so long — I wanted to be in and out in three years. After I got hurt and just rehabbing it back come January and February, I’m not even thinking declaring for the draft this coming November or December. I’m just thinking about how healthy can I get for spring ball in March. I approached every day like it was the Super Bowl.”

This approach resonated within the locker room and coaching staff. Jones was named a 2022 team captain, equipped to serve as the leadership figure for a Ball State team fresh off losing a horde of contributors from its 2020 MAC championship squad. With injuries in the rearview mirror and a clean slate ahead, Jones was ready to prove his mettle as a future NFL player to the world.

“It wasn’t probably until a handful of games in that it was like, ‘Alright, we got a pro in the room,’” Jones said on the 2022 season. “It was a fast ascension for sure. It was brewing the whole time I was there if you would have asked anybody else that was there.”

Ball State opened on the road against a loaded Tennessee passing attack which featured 2022 SEC Offensive Player of the Year Hendon Hooker and Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt. Jones’ main assignment was likely day two draft pick Cedric Tillman.

That’s when Jones realized one of his greatest assets was preparation. He spent an entire summer scheming against Tennessee’s offense and studying Tillman’s tendencies in order to launch 2022 on the right foot. And those countless hours of preparation paid off, as Jones held Tillman to his lowest receiving output in eight games at 68 yards. Despite the Cardinals’ loss in Knoxville, Jones’ individual performance manufactured an important realization — he was a future NFL Draft selection.

“First half Tennessee — just being in that stage. In my mind it wasn’t about proving I belonged; it was about proving I could excel at that level,” Jones said. “I just felt so comfortable in that moment. Then I would say Murray State — that was the game where I just let loose. That was probably the best game of my career. That was the game I realized if I’m preparing how I’m supposed to, I can put some crazy stuff on tape every week. That was where I knew I was a next-level player for sure.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Ball State at Tennessee
Nic Jones describes last September’s visit to Tennessee as a moment where he realized his pro potential.
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jones’ first crack as a starting cornerback for an entire season resulted in a second-team All-MAC selection. The senior defensive back picked off a pair of passes and broke up an additional 12 while spearheading one of the premier aerial defenses in the MAC. But it wasn’t just his defensive prowess which made him desirable NFL talent; his ability to dominate on special teams added more spice to his draft stock.

“That was one thing going into the draft process people always told me was a big deal. ‘It’s great that you put that on tape, that you play special teams,’” Jones recounted. “In the moment for me, that was just a way of life when I was in school — especially my first year and my second year — because one, it’s hard enough to get a job unless you’re an every down corner. I was a nickel guy so I’m just taking what you can give me. But special teams just adds to your value a little more.”

On special teams, Jones’ résumé consists of both a blocked punt and blocked field goal. The former of the two transpired in the 2020 Arizona Bowl — Ball State’s first bowl victory in program history. The latter occurred in a dominant road win over Western Michigan in 2021. Jones dabbled in other areas of special teams as well, such as serving as a recurring kick returner, and he credits Ball State’s approach to this facet of the game for making his arsenal more complete.

“My freshman year, I couldn’t even get a job on special teams — it was that competitive,” Jones said. “They preached that over there that it’s a way of life. The best players are gonna play. They showed us that tape of guys like [Alabama wide receivers] DeVonta Smith or Jameson Williams — they’re running down on punts, hitting guys. They were gonna show us that DeVonta Smith tape every time. A thousand yard receiver, but he has no issue running down on punts. For me, it was like, if they can do it I can do it.”

Origin of a competitive spirit

Prior to committing to Ball State in the summer of 2018, Jones’ football career was concentrated in Southfield, Michigan — a suburb serving as a northern border of Detroit. The main term Jones uses to characterize the area is ‘competitive.’ The seriousness of competition is instilled within the majority of youth in Southfield, and it affects children from a young age as they create a social hierarchy based on one criteria: being the best, and nothing but the best at a certain activity.

“It was eye-opening,” Jones said. “As a kid, it’s not necessarily something you should be exposed to, but I just think everything I did made me better because it put me in way more competitive environments. Everything was a game. Everything was the most competitive game ever. Recess football to me was who you are as a kid. Nobody really cares what you’re wearing or what you got on. We all play something, it’s more of... are you good?”

Jones developed an edge from this upbringing and channeled it into a successful college football career. As he reflects on his past, he realizes the competitive nature stemming from the Southfield environment is one of the driving forces behind this NFL Draft process.

“It’s the way I go about life,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s pickup basketball or UNO, I want to win. Everything about the way I grew up, the environments I was in, the people I grew up around made me a competitor.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Indiana v Ball State
Nic Jones earned his first collegiate starting opportunity shortly after turning 18 years old.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jones grew up in a household featuring seven other siblings. Of the eight, he was the second youngest. With a plethora of older brothers, competition was strong within the Jones family. As the baby of the group, he never wanted his age or size to prevent him from being the best. That goal was ultimately accomplished as he became the only sibling to play FBS college football. This same mentality which molded his youth came in handy when arriving at Ball State at age 17, holding the distinction as the youngest player on the roster. Despite the discrepancy in age when compared to veteran teammates, Jones powered through and earned a start at nickelback the instant he turned 18 as a true freshman.

“You look at the guys to your left and your right and it reminds me of when I’m a kid out there and I’m the youngest person or the smallest person,” Jones said. “All I ever thought was I belong to be here, but I always thought I had to prove it a bit more.”

The draft process through Jones’ lens

Football is the ultimate team sport. It’s 11 individuals pitted against another 11, with each side hoping to attain a common goal. But the sport becomes most individualized on the boundaries, specifically in wide receiver vs. cornerback matchups. In order for a cornerback to prove his NFL mettle, he must thrive against NFL competition. When asked about the toughest competition Jones faced at Ball State, he didn’t hesitate, citing former Western Michigan receiver Skyy Moore — the recipient of a fourth quarter touchdown in Super Bowl LVII.

“The toughest cover I had while I was at Ball State was Skyy Moore,” Jones said. “You had to earn every win. He never gave us crazy numbers. You’ll never really see any of the pro guys that we face give us a crazy game... But if you watch the tape of the games we had against Skyy Moore, it was all hands on deck. It wasn’t just one guy, two guys, three guys — everybody got a shot at him. Everybody got a chance. He’s gonna run from inside, outside, deep routes, screens — and he runs them all well. He’s a monster.”

Guarding Moore was one of Jones’ first exposures to an NFL environment. He received an additional opportunity in a professional-like setting by earning an invite to the 2023 East-West Shrine Game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Jones rose on many teams’ draft radars during that process, and during the actual game, the Ball State alumnus picked off a pass in zone coverage and returned the goods 26 yards. Jones was also one of two defenders in the game to be credited with multiple pass breakups.

“That was life-changing. I was real grateful for it,” Jones said of the experience in Las Vegas. “It’s not every day you get to play in front of NFL fans and scouts of all 32 teams. That was definitely something I didn't take lightly.”

NCAA Football: East West Shrine Bowl
Nic Jones returned an interception 26 yards at the East-West Shrine Game at Allegiant Stadium in February.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly one month after the East-West Shrine Game passed, Jones saw an even more coveted opportunity come along. He was one of four MAC players invited to the 2023 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, along with Central Michigan’s Thomas Incoom and the pair of Jose Ramirez and Sidy Sow from Eastern Michigan. At the Combine, Jones impressed the most with his speed attributes. He clocked in at 4.51 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a 6’0”, 190 pound cornerback, demonstrating an impressive combination of size and speed for the position.

“I went in there and made the most of it. I felt prepared for it. Whatever the numbers were, I just felt I was gonna walk away proud because not a lot of people who play at schools in the MAC ever get to make it to that stage. I definitely opened some eyes for people. There are people that sleep on guys in that conference. There’s a lot of talent there, and I was just happy to be able to represent it.”

Less than a year ago, Jones’ football résumé was rather empty for a draft hopeful simply due to the lack of an opportunity. But an inspiring injury recovery process combined with a stellar 2022 season can transform the NFL dream he envisioned when arriving at Ball State into a reality. All it took was one full season as a starting cornerback.

So what’s next for one of the most rapid ascension stories in the 2023 NFL Draft?

After lining up in a multitude of roles from boundary corner to nickelback to different roles on special teams, Jones understands his willingness to take on any role is one of his main selling points to NFL teams.

“It doesn’t matter what role you give me,” Jones said. “I’ll walk your dog, run down on punts, babysit... it doesn’t matter. I’m a dog. Any role you give me, I’m gonna do it better than the guy you ask next time.”

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