Nick Jones had a realization when spring practice started earlier this month.
He’s a veteran among the Gamecocks’ receiving corps.
“The first day out here and the first time having meetings, I looked around and didn’t have Ace [Sanders] beside me or Bruce [Ellington] or Alshon [Jeffery] and the other guys,” said Jones, a redshirt junior. “I was the oldest one.”
Sanders departed for the NFL, and Ellington was finishing up basketball season. Meanwhile, Damiere Byrd was sideline the first week of spring practice after having LASIK surgery.
Jones found himself in a leadership role alongside two freshmen and three sophomores.
“It’s different,” Jones said. “It seems like I was just here myself as the young guy. Now being the older guy, it’s fun helping out the younger guys and teaching them. They’re pushing me to maintain my spot too. It’s all good for us.”
Jones, who played at Byrnes High School, finished the 2012 season strong and is No. 1 at one of the three receiver spots with Ellington and Byrd. Receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. asked Jones to learn all three positions.
“He just wants me to help him out teaching all the young guys,” Jones said. “He wants me to try to be the best player I can, know everything and be able to line up anywhere and go play.”
Three of Jones’ five career starts came at the end of 2012. He had two first-down catches – including one for 30 yards – in the third-quarter, go-ahead drive against Clemson. His career-long 70-yard reception against Michigan set up a Sanders score that put the Gamecocks up 21-10 in the second quarter of the Outback Bowl.
In all, he caught 12 passes for 197 yards in 2012.
“I like the way I finished,” Jones said. “I feel like I finished strong. I feel like I could do a lot more this year.”
Jones spent most of 2012 behind senior D.L. Moore. Spurrier Jr. was a little remorseful he didn’t play Jones sooner and more often.
“He played very, very well those last few games,” Spurrier said. “I almost half-apologized to him because D.L. is hard guy not to play because he’s big, he’s strong, he runs well and usually catches well. Nick is a productive kid.”
Jones is going through personal adjustments this year as well, with two of his best friends moving on for the NFL.
He was the only other person in the room when Sanders declared his intentions to turn pro. And longtime friend and teammate Marcus Lattimore is training and preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft.
“This is the first year we haven’t played together since we started playing football when we were 7,” Jones said of Lattimore. “I know he’s doing well. He’d want me to do the best too.”
After wearing Nos. 13, 10 and 5 in the past, Jones is now wearing No. 3. And he said he’s not taking his opportunity atop the depth chart for granted.
He likes being a teacher to the younger players, but he’s also doing his part to make a good impression for 2013. Jones wants to be more of a leader and make more plays this season.
He’ll get his chance, Spurrier Jr. said.
“He’s been an awfully good player for us when he’s been on the field,” Spurrier said. “He’s made some really big plays for us. We look forward to letting him contribute a good bit this year.”