It may be that only Chris Jones knows how close he was to signing with Ole Miss.
Certainly there was drama surrounding the Houston defensive lineman in February, a long-time Mississippi State verbal commitment.
In the days leading to signing day, there were contested written accounts of Jones’ whereabouts, a recruiting equivalent to sightings of Elvis at Burger King.
Adding to the intrigue was that Ole Miss was already expected to sign the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Robert Nkemdiche, also a defensive lineman. Rivals ranked Jones the No. 20 player in the country, the No. 2 defensive end behind Nkemdiche.
Peculiar at the end, their recruiting paths were very different. Nkemdiche was a known commodity in advance. Jones gained popularity through his senior season and the all-star circuit.
What might an Ole Miss defensive line have looked like with both players?
Eleven games into their freshman seasons, the numbers are similar. Both signed as ends but are playing tackle.
Jones has two sacks to Nkemdiche’s one, nine quarterback pressures to Nkemdiche’s three. Both have 26 tackles, and Nkemdiche – who has played in almost three fewer games because of a hamstring injury – has seven tackles for loss to five for Jones.
Ole Miss coaches say Nkemdiche’s production has been affected more by C.J. Johnson’s injuries than his own.
Johnson spent the first first few games trying to recover from a spring-time broken leg. When he developed an ankle issue mid-way through everyone just called it a season.
“With the loss of C.J., I think everybody up there took a little hit. We don’t have the gifted one-on-one pass rusher anywhere. People can slide protections anyway they want to against us right now, because they really don’t have a lot of fear that we can win a lot of one-on-ones. That’s who we are right now,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
Their careers will run parallel paths until one leaves for pro football, and Jones and Nkemdiche will be forever linked by the bizarre nature – even by recruiting standards – of their separate courtship.
Oh yeah, there’s that performance thing too. They’ll become dominant players on their respective teams, and they will clash head-to-head at least three times, which would mean that someone will break that link. There will be no tie, at least when their worth is measured by their teams’ wins and losses.
Determining which is the better player may never have so clear an answer. Fans will stick by their man.
Watching this head-to-head competition play out over the next three – or possibly four – Ole Miss-MSU games will be great fun on both sides of the rivalry.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@ journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.