Thriving in Second Chance

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On Nov. 4, 2011, Nazair Jones played in Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) High School’s 2A state playoff loss to North Johnston. Two days later, the promising defensive line prospect couldn’t walk.

Jones, now a redshirt freshman defensive tackle at UNC, remembers the weekend vividly. On Friday, his junior season came to a close. On Saturday, it was Bulgarian squats in the weight room. On Sunday, the harsh reality that would last eight excruciating months set in.

Over the next several months, Jones went through various tests at UNC’s Children Hospital; all the while his condition was worsening, ultimately forcing him into a wheelchair. He dropped nearly 50 pounds off his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame and eventually was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic pain condition that affects a body part following an injury or trauma.

For Jones, the area of concern was his back. To this day, he’s still not sure how the injury came about as he was dealing with pain before the playoff loss and the squats the following morning.

Throughout the ordeal, his recruitment cooled off. It was understandable given the severity of his condition. UNC stayed in contact, watching and waiting.

“When I went to see Nazair, he was on crutches and within five minutes he could not even stand there and talk to me,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said on Thursday. “He had to sit down because there was so much pain. That was a scary situation. He went from like 250 pounds to 220 or 215; I don’t know exactly what it was. So that was scary for him, his family, his coaches and everybody. We kept recruiting him, we stayed in touch, but we wanted to make sure that we knew he was healthy coming out of that thing, and he was.”

Jones was cleared in June 2012 to return to football. UNC offered in mid-July and Jones only needed an hour to ponder the opportunity before verbally committing to Fedora.

After redshirting his freshman season in 2013, Jones has exploded up the depth chart at the three-technique and is slated to start the season opener against Liberty on Aug. 30.

“One of my goals was to come in and become the starter,” Jones said. “My coaches knew that, my teammates knew that, the other guys on the depth chart knew that and I just had to come out and prove every day that I could be the starter and that I could play with the other starters. So I feel like I came out and did what I had to do to get where I’m at.”

Jones has packed on roughly 40 pounds since arriving in Chapel Hill some 15 months ago and now weighs 290 pounds. While he’s lost some speed with the weight gain, he pushes himself to match redshirt freshman defensive end Dajaun Drennon, who is 30 pounds lighter, in running drills.

Junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer grew accustomed to receiving texts from Jones during the offseason, whether it was inquiring about an extra workout on a random Saturday or requesting additional film room study to solidify defensive assignments.

“Some of those young guys get here and they see older guys at their positions and think, ‘Oh, I’ll wait two years to play, I’ll wait to my junior year,’ Schoettmer said. “But Naz redshirted this past fall and ever since he saw Tim Jackson and Kareem Martin leave, he saw that as an opportunity, so he took advantage of that and has really made the most of it.”

Schoettmer described Jones’s “want-to” as surpassing that of most defensive linemen he’s been around at UNC.

“I play every day like it’s my last because it could be and it has been before,” Jones said. “I never thought that I would be right here back when I was in the hospital, just up the road sitting in a hospital bed at the children’s hospital. I just never thought that I would be here.”

UNC’s recent attrition along the defensive line made it imperative for someone to elevate his play. Nose tackles Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb were dismissed due to academics and the returning starter at nose, Ethan Farmer, is currently waiting to hear about his eligibility status for the fall.

The projected starter at three-technique entering camp was junior Justin Thomason, who has since slid over to nose to fill the void. While it may sound counterintuitive, Jones was not happy about that development. He preferred to earn the starting job by beating out both Jessie Rogers and Thomason.

UNC’s 2013 starting defensive tackles – Jackson and Farmer – were more effective against the run than the pass, combining for half of a sack in 13 games. Rushing the passer is an area where Jones expects to thrive.

“We already knew he was a fast guy and that he had great agility, so he really just put that all together,” senior safety Tim Scott said. “This training camp he’s just been blowing past guys, bull rush, finesse rush; he’s been doing everything… In the secondary, we feel like if he can get to the quarterback that quick, then we know the ball is going to come out quick, which means we can play more man coverage.”

Jones is confident, yet humble. His work ethic and talent has put him in position to play a critical role in UNC’s defensive success as a second-year player.

“I want to get my feet wet, but then again, I don’t want to be a guy that nobody knows,” Jones said. “At the end of the year, I want to be on somebody’s watch list for some kind of award. I’m not a guy that’s all about individual stats, but that’s how I can compare myself to the rest of the country and the rest of my teammates and the rest of the people that played before me. I just want to go out there and make plays.”

Next Saturday night was a lifetime away for Jones nearly three years ago; improbable, at best. Given his circumstances, don’t be surprised by a display of emotion from No. 90 as kickoff nears.

“I’m going to try not to smile too much,” Jones said.

 

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