CLEMSON — Kellen Jones’ smile veils a 6-foot-1, 223-pound smoldering cauldron stoked by the memories of being told he was too slow and too fat.
It hardly seems plausible that as a fourth and fifth grader in Houston, Texas, he was bullied for being an overweight nerd — because Jones might emerge as the best linebacker at Clemson in a decade.
“You’ve got to be a little violent to play linebacker,” Jones said recently, “You’ve got to have a little edge.”
Discovering his edge and his place did not come without setbacks.Jones transferred to Clemson last year from Oklahoma, where in 2011 he played on special teams. Originally recruited by Rich Rodriguez and signed by Michigan, his scholarship was voided when he was dismissed from summer school over a conflict with another player.
“It was an unfortunate circumstance,” said Jones’ father, Sean Jones, a native of Chicago and lifelong fan of the Maize and Blue. Brent Venables had recruited Jones for Oklahoma. Though the Sooners weren’t considered initially, father and son liked the defensive coordinator.
“Brent is a great guy and a straight shooter,” said Sean Jones, a former linebacker at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He said Venables was “the only reason” his son enrolled at Oklahoma. “He was there, but he was not happy. We have a term for it around here. We call it the Michigan Blues.”
When Venables left Oklahoma last year for Clemson, Jones called his father and said, “gotta go.”
Like many fathers, Sean Jones imbued his son with a passion for football.
“He loved football. He would talk about it all the time. My family would say, doesn’t he need to be doing something else? I’d say, he’s got good grades, he’s not in trouble and it’s what he’s interested in.”
Kellen Jones also liked school.
“He’s a smart kid. He’s always been an honors student,” Sean Jones said. “He was a nerd who was really athletic. He didn’t know where to fit in sometimes, with the jocks or the nerds. He was kind of caught between them.
“Fourth and fifth grade were kind of tough,” he said. “He was kind of chubby and not street wise because his mom and I sheltered him a great deal. He was actually bullied and picked on. It kind of put a chip on his shoulder.”
His father did not permit him to play organized football until sixth grade. “I bounced him around a little bit,” Sean Jones said. “I told him, life is tough, you gotta be tough. You gotta have a tough mentality. When he put on the pads, it kind of evened things out.”
Over the next year he began to grow, and by seventh grade the bullying had stopped. “When he got some confidence it was about proving people wrong who said he couldn’t play.”
As a junior at St. Pius X High in Houston, it was evident Kellen was a good player. His dad wasn’t clear how good, so he asked a friend, former Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, to evaluate him. Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, was coaching at another school in Houston.
Ward reported, “Kellen can play.”
Sean Jones said is eager to see his son Saturday in the spring game, to see that smoldering cauldron which Venables described as a stick of dynamite.
It’s not about being angry, just motivated. It’s really being told, you’re not tall enough, you’re not fast enough,” Sean Jones said, “You’re not going to be as good as you think.”