Connecting the dots between former University of Mississippi linebacker Jacquez Jones and current Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall is easy. The latter coached the former in 2018 while he was an assistant under former Rebels head coach Matt Luke.
Kentucky quickly emerged as the favorite to land Jones when the senior entered the transfer portal last week, though several other schools — Liberty, South Carolina and UCLA among them — were in contact with the Rebels’ leading tackler from last season. One would assume Sumrall was part of the reason; that of course helped, but it didn’t make UK a no-brainer for Jones.
Nor did Jones automatically choose Kentucky because of its need for experience in the middle of the defense.
“Some people probably think because of our history that it was a quick deal and it wasn’t,” Sumrall told the Herald-Leader.
Kentucky was quick to reach out to Jones, but it wanted to bring him to campus prior to either party firming up a commitment to the other. It was important, Sumrall said, for UK’s players in particular to get a sense of who Jones is and spend some time with him. They’re short-staffed at linebacker, but bringing in an unexpected addition — particularly one with Jones’ resume — had the potential to ruffle feathers.
When Sumrall raised the possibility of adding Jones to the guys in his room, it was the furthest thing from a lead balloon.
“I explained who it was and all that, and every guy in the room said, ‘Coach, that’s awesome, let’s get him on our team, we want him,’” Sumrall said. “’If you like him and think he’s gonna help us, let’s get him.’ Every guy in the room is supportive of whatever it’s gonna take for us to be our best. From top to bottom, the whole group.”
Jones’ departure from Ole Miss raised some eyebrows. He was the Rebels’ leading tackler last season after finishing No. 2 in that category as a sophomore. He started 18 of a possible 22 games over the last two seasons and was projected to be one of the top returning players for a team that won four of its final five games under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin.
Sumrall didn’t want to get into the specifics regarding Jones’ transfer, but did say Ole Miss had a desire to keep him in Oxford after he entered the portal.
UK’s linebackers spent a couple days this week with Jones and his family. That experience sealed the deal on both sides. Kentucky’s players are the team’s best recruiters, as they’re ultimately the proof of concept.
“We’re excited about what he’s gonna bring,” Sumrall said. “Sometimes there are just certain factors, where you’re at, a certain time and place, when you feel that something else is better for you.”
Jones stayed on the right developmental trajectory despite losing Sumrall’s guidance after his freshman season. He’s always had a high-football IQ, Sumrall says, and the kind of instincts that one needs to succeed as a Southeastern Conference linebacker. There’s been a lot of improvement, but he expects a lot more is in store for him after at least a year in Lexington (Jones could play a fifth season of college football due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver).
On paper, he projects as a starter alongside DeAndre Square, the only middle linebacker on UK’s roster with double-digit starts (22) under his belt. Sumrall says Jones won’t be handed the job but imagines he’ll play a significant amount of snaps, assuming he puts in the kind of work at UK that he’s done at Ole Miss.
“Square would tell you that if he doesn’t show up to practice with great effort and intensity and attention to detail, he’s not gonna start,” Sumrall said. “He would tell you that. Guys are gonna work.”
With transferring made easier by the NCAA as well as the SEC — the league recently removed its rule requiring intraconference transfers to sit for a year — some have suggested that programs like Kentucky (good, but not elite) could become hunting grounds for marquee teams that need to plug a hole on their rosters en route to another title.
However, since the new transfer rules went into effect, UK is one of three SEC teams that’s waved goodbye to the fewest players (nine since October, tied with Ole Miss and South Carolina); only one has signed with another Power Five program (MJ Devonshire, with his hometown Pittsburgh Panthers).
On the flip side, Jones became the third Power Five addition for the Wildcats this offseason, following Luke Fulton (Michigan State) and Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska).
“Kids out there, they know the lay of the land in college football,” Sumrall said. “You don’t have to do a whole lot of research to figure out that guys like playing here, that guys like playing for Mark Stoops. Guys like the culture of our program. If you love football and like doing things the right way, it’s a real fun place to be. …
“DeAndre Square, Jared Casey, D’Eryck Jackson — those guys are freaking awesome guys. They understand what it means to be a great teammate and to support each other and to have each other’s back. They’re all for each other and for the best in the room. It’s a culture where it’s very easy to pull for each other and be successful, and I think that shows through to people on the outside. “
Predictions: Who will start for Kentucky’s defense when 2021 kicks off?