ATHENS — Abry Jones is making life difficult for defensive line coach Rodney Garner.
It’s not out of the ordinary for Garner to be frustrated with one of his young defensive tackles, but that’s not the issue for Jones. In fact, Jones has been so impressive in his first three weeks of practice that Garner’s biggest problem has been finding enough playing time for the former Northside standout.
“That’s the thing I’m struggling with right now the most is what to do with him,” Garner said. “The guys will tell you, he shows (potential). He really does.”
In years past, Jones would have been a miracle, not a dilemma. This season, however, Georgia’s depth chart at defensive tackle is as deep as it has been in a while, with seniors Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston leading the pack.
That makes finding playing time for Jones a bit problematic, regardless of how sharp he looks during practice.
“You’ve just got to be able to justify, can he get enough snaps?” Garner said. “That’s the thing struggle you go with.”
As excited as Garner is about Jones’ future, the freshman isn’t getting any preferential treatment out on the practice field.
Garner is notoriously tough on his players and isn’t one to sugar coat mistakes. When it comes to getting better, every player has room for improvement, and Jones hasn’t been spared from the critiques.
“It’s true he gets a little rough, but you can already tell he just wants what’s best for us,” Jones said. “It gets tough at times, and we don’t really want to hear it, but we get through it and try to do it better next time.”
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Jones takes the demands of life on Georgia’s defensive line in stride. He has always worked to live up to high expectations.
Jones is from a military family, and when it comes to being prepared, to doing things right, to focusing on the details, Garner’s lofty standards are no match for the expectations at home.
“Coach Garner said (Jones’) mom is tough on him, and she keeps pushing him, so I see where he gets his fight from,” Owens said.
It was the perfect preparation for the new life of an SEC lineman, which might be why Garner likes Jones so much.
While Georgia’s other two freshman defensive tackles struggle to get accustomed to the rigorous practices and grueling demands of the coaching staff, Jones just keeps cruising along.
“I don’t know if it’s just me coming in late, but he’s got the plays down pat already, and he’s everything Coach G wants,” fellow freshman Kwame Geathers said. “He just works hard, goes hard every play. I admire him a lot.”
Despite the preparation Jones had at home, he said the biggest advantage he has had was simply getting to Georgia and watching the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
Rather than sulk about a trio of seniors likely to dominate the playing time, Jones made a point of embedding himself with them, watching every move those players made and doing his best to recreate the same success himself.
“When you have Kade, Jeff and Geno — three seniors who have played SEC football for a while — they know how it is,” Jones said. “Then you have Geno and Jeff who have such great draft status and stuff like that, you just watch them during practice and watch what they do. It’s a great way to step your game up and learn little things before they leave.”
Whatever the method, the results have been immensely impressive.
Last year, freshman DeAngelo Tyson was the standout of the young defensive tackles, and he managed to earn a nod on the All-SEC freshman team. Jones is well ahead of where Tyson was a year ago, Garner said.
There’s still room, however, for Jones to improve. As the hot summer days have worn on and the practice tempo has remained high, Garner said the pace has taken its toll on Jones, who is still working to get into football shape.
“He’s got to get in the weight room, and he’s got to get stronger,” Garner said. “He’s got to get his body in better condition because you can start to tell where the grind is just starting to wear on him.”
Within a few breaths of lauding Jones’ aptitude, Garner launched into a quick synopsis of the faults he found in his seniors. Atkins, Owens and Weston all project to play in the NFL next year, but Garner hadn’t been impressed with their recent performances.
It’s not easy to earn compliments from a man so brutally honest, but that’s the type of treatment Jones appreciates and takes to heart.
“You think you do so well in high school that it’s going to be an easy transition to college,” Jones said. “That’s the biggest thing you have to get over, but once you get past that, you humble yourself and know the position you’re at, and you can get better from there.”
Getting better seems like an inevitability for Jones. Garner may not be able to promise playing time to the freshman this season, he said, but a bright future is nearly guaranteed.
“He has a lot of playmaking ability, and he’s a pretty sharp guy from a mental standpoint,” Garner said. “He’s going to be a pretty special player.”