Wednesday, August 6, 2008

LSU's Jones Focusing on Football

It was as if someone had recorded over Chad Jones' highlight of the 2007 football season.

It was Jones who blitzed and sacked Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson to force a fumble that LSU recovered deep in Alabama territory late in the fourth quarter last season. This set up the go-ahead touchdown with 1:26 to play for the Tigers' 41-34 victory in Tuscaloosa.

But when Jones, a sophomore safety this season, sat down to watch the LSU baseball team play Rice in the College World Series last June, his highlight sort of got trumped.

Blake Dean hit a bases-loaded triple in the ninth inning to beat the Owls 6-5 for LSU's first victory in Omaha, Neb., since 2000. Left fielder/wide receiver Jared Mitchell scored the winning run from first after nearly lapping Michael Hollander on the way home. For an instant, Sean Ochinko, Michael Hollander and Mitchell were all running between third and home in a play right out of the "Major League" movie.

"That was such a great play," Jones said. "What a way to win a game."

Jones cheered wildly, but it was somewhat bittersweet. He possibly could have been there between third and home and playing for a national championship in baseball after winning one in football last season.

A 13th round selection of the Houston Astros in the summer of 2007, Jones came to LSU with plans to play football and baseball. After struggling early last season in baseball and in academics while also participating in spring football, Jones felt like he was under an all-out blitz.

"It was just that everything at one time hit me hard," he said. "And it was hard for me to get out of the hole."

His grades suffered, and he gave up baseball for the season to focus more on academics.. He then spent late spring and summer with more free time than ever. He watched LSU in Omaha.

"It was my first summer since I can remember not playing baseball," he said after football practice this week. "I was probably 6 years old the last time I didn't play baseball. It was different. I kind of enjoyed the free time. I was just sitting back and relaxing, but then I see my team and I'm supposed to be out there playing with them. So it goes both ways. All I could do was cheer my teammates on. I'd call them after the game — Leon and Jared. I called them and wished them good luck. I watched every game."

Jones had impressed LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri so much in pre-season practice that he saw the dual-sport star as a possible starter in the outfield. But Landry, a freshman like Jones, was more impressive and won center field. Mitchell, who played center in 2006, moved to left field. Jones tried right field, but he didn't expect the wealth of talent next to him.

"They had four other people in right field," he said. "I was just thinking of how it used to be in high school (at St. Augustine in New Orleans and then Southern Lab in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina), because I just know this is my spot. This is my spot easy. But I get out there, and I'm like, 'All right, he can throw pretty good. Oh, he can hit, too. Oh, he can hit, too.' So it was just battling it out for the position. That's why LSU is pretty high up there."

The other right fielders at the time were Dean himself, Landry, Nicholas Pontiff and Johnny Dishon. In limited playing time in between spring football practices, Jones went 2-for-13 for a .154 batting average in five games.

"He didn't handle it particularly well," Mainieri said. "It wasn't so much the football and baseball. It was the school part. If you don't do any one of those three well, it knocks everything out of the water. He just didn't apply himself in school. I think the kid is an excellent talent, but it's tough. Hopefully, he'll be able to do better academically and balance things and help us next season."

That's Jones' plan.

"I definitely want to play baseball at LSU," he said. "The only thing I'd do different is step it up in the beginning because doing two sports at one time is very time consuming. I had to cut baseball out so I could catch up. I should be able to do it next year."

Baseball was always a clear No. 1 until last season.

"I was straight baseball," Jones said. "Football was secondary, but now after playing in a great stadium in front of fans like that, things get balanced out."

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