Nick Jones has a new haircut, a new jersey number and, most important, a new introduction.
For the past three seasons, Jones has been referred to almost exclusively as “Marcus Lattimore’s high school teammate” Nick Jones. Heading into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, that has switched to “South Carolina’s leading receiver” Nick Jones.
“It’s a new me,” Jones said. “I don’t have Marcus here anymore. I don’t have Ace (Sanders) here anymore. I just want to make a whole new change so it can just be about Nick and just start improving myself, getting better each day.”
The implication in Jones’ old introduction, that he was a part of a package deal designed to seal Lattimore’s commitment to the Gamecocks, is not lost on him. It’s part of what motivated him to get in the best shape of his career and work tirelessly on his route running this offseason.
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“I just didn’t like the thought of only being here because of being Marcus Lattimore’s teammate,” Jones said. “I wanted to make a name for myself, so I just wanted to work harder and be more dedicated to the game.”
It has worked. Wearing No. 3 rather than his old No. 10 and sporting a close-cropped haircut, Jones has caught 10 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns through two games. His reception total is twice that of any of his teammates and is two shy of his previous best season.
“I am just a lot more comfortable out there this year,” said Jones, a junior who had 24 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown in his first two seasons. “I am one of the guys that has been working real heard. (Nothing) is given to me. I have been working hard all my life.”
Jones is coming off a career game that featured six catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-30 loss to Georgia.
“He catches everything in practice,” coach Steve Spurrier. “It’s easy to stick with guys who catch about everything in practice and run good routes and so forth.”
Jones’ conditioning caught Spurrier’s eye this season. Listed as 189 pounds as a freshman, Jones is now 174 pounds.
“You’d think a guy about 5-7 wouldn’t need to lose weight, but he needed to lose weight,” Spurrier said. “He’s quick. When we do our sprints after practice, he’s one of the first guys over and back. He’s in tip-top shape.”
Jones’ emergence began in last year’s Clemson game. He had five catches for 74 yards through the first 11 games of 2012 and then closed with four catches for 45 yards against the Tigers and three catches for 78 yards in the Outback Bowl.
His strengths are understanding defenses and precision in his routes, he said.
“My route running has been something I’ve been working on since I started playing receiver,” he said. “I’m not the tallest guy in the world. My route running has to be very intact because I am not going to just go up and go over anybody to go get the ball. I have to separate myself with my route running and my speed and getting in and out of my cuts.”
Despite his presence at the top of the statistics sheet, Jones does not consider himself the team’s top receiving target, he said. In fact, he’s still more comfortable out of the spotlight.
“Dating back from my high school days, being a teammate of Marcus, I have been overlooked since those days so I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “It kind of makes me want to be better than what people think.”