Monday, January 18, 2021

Naquan Jones, a kindness and motivation unparalleled

November 28, 2020
<p>Naquan Jones (93) celebrates with Maverick Hansen (96) near the end of a game against U of M on Oct. 31, 2020.</p>

Naquan Jones (93) celebrates with Maverick Hansen (96) near the end of a game against U of M on Oct. 31, 2020.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Naquan Jones plays football with a kind, competitive motivation.

He's a good person, a kind one and a senior who will graduate with a college degree in the coming months. For him, life is more than just what happens on the gridiron. The last year has taught him this.

The Evanston, Illinois, native lost his mother during the summer of 2019 and when he steps on the football field Saturday to play Northwestern, the college from his hometown, his motivation rests with the memory of the woman who raised him.

"It's just more of a process you know," Jones said. "I’m dealing with that in different ways. I try to use that as motivation instead of like sorrow and being sad about it because I know what she wanted for me, and I know she had very high expectations of me."

The pictures that litter his bedroom walls of her make him happy more than anything, just to see his mother's face, he said.

It's this motivation that shrinks the obstacles in his way.

As he bends his body and flattens offensive linemen in his path, he compartmentalizes all that drives him into his run-stopping, pass rush moves that have helped the senior total 10 tackles, 1.5 for loss with one fumble recovery as an interior defensive lineman, numbers that set him on pace to nearly double his season totals last year.

A season he didn't know he'd even play in has become one of his best.

That choice to play this season amid the pandemic was stressful for him and his family. Jones had COVID-19 at one point and shared on Tuesday that he has even lost other members of his family to the disease.

"I obviously have gone through some stuff in my life," Jones said. "... It opens your eyes. You never really know what people are going through. I mean, I’m not the only one who experienced something like that."

It's those experiences that drive not just the 6-foot-4, 340-pound frame but also his kind heart.

"I feel like being kind and caring, everyone should be that way," Jones said. "I just know that if you’re polite to somebody, that will help them, that’ll help their thought process or whatever they’re going through."

He weaponizes that into his play, he said. A selfless play and leadership style of coordinating what is a young defensive-line group has been a goal all year for Jones.

His goal has been to lead underclassmen like Jalen Hunt, Dashaun Mallory and Jacob Slade.

"It's a tale of two sides for Naquan," his roommate and teammate Trenton Gillison said. "On Saturday's you see him probably like, 'oh my God, big scary D-Lineman' but at practice, he's always got a smile on his face. ... Even back at home, Naquan's just a guy who you kind gravitate toward. ... I kind of look at him as a big brother."

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'You’re moving to right tackle'

Jones' path started in the town Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats call home.

At Evanston Township High School, where he played both sides of the ball for a time, the competitiveness that it takes to play the violent game of football began to come out.

“He was playing defensive line, and we couldn’t run the ball week one and we said, ‘Naquan, this is high school football, you’re moving to right tackle," Evanston Township football coach Mike Burzawa said. "... We had a very good season that year."

It was this versatility that got him recruited by every major program in the country. But when Jones was crushing both sides of the ball in high school, he was still Naquan off the field.

"I couldn’t be more proud of him, our coaches couldn't be more proud of him and he’s got a great contingency of support and fans in Evanston that really know Naquan as a person," Burzawa said.

This doesn't mean to understate his talent either. The senior has been a force this year for a Michigan State front-seven that has been one of the bright spots for a 1-3 MSU football team.

"Naquan's a people person, you know, and he's obviously a big guy that's got tremendous talent," MSU Head Coach Mel Tucker said. "For his size, he moves very well; he's got initial quickness; he's got some strength. ... He wants to be a good player, he wants to be a consistent player and I see him working toward that, and we're helping him do that. ... We're working to capture his mind."

It's those traits that showed his high school coaches and many across the country that he could play at the college level, maybe even professionally, as he dreams of doing.

He will graduate with a degree, but dreams of maybe coaching.

Regardless of what he chooses to do, when he walks onto the field Saturday, for one of his final games as a Spartan, the redshirt senior will have his family and friends all the way from Evanston, Illinois.

Still cheering for him.

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