When talented high school players develop into sought-after prospects, it’s sometimes tough for coaches to keep their priorities in order.
All too often their high school’s workouts, such as lifting, conditioning and 7-on-7 events, become secondary to college camps, combines and other opportunities to showcase themselves to the masses.
Ninety Six coach Chris Liner had a refreshing reintroduction into the limelight of the big-time recruiting blur. His best player is offensive tackle Oliver Jones, one of the state’s most intriguing prospects, who has remained committed to one thing since bursting onto the scene in the spring of 2010: Ninety Six’s football program.
“He was offered by Clemson and Carolina last spring (2010),” said Liner, who coached a number of blue-chip prospects as an assistant at Greenwood. “ Coach [Billy] Napier from Clemson and coach [Brad] Lawing saw him practice and both offered him on the spot.
“He was 57 for 57 on his workouts last spring and summer. Oliver was extremely concerned about Ninety Six winning. If he could squeeze in a one-day [camp] or a three-day [camp] in between our workouts, he would do it. But to me that was impressive. A lot of times when you get national attention, it’s tough to get the helmet on those kids’ heads a lot of times.”
That wasn’t the case with Jones, however. Liner said he hasn’t coached another player with greater dedication or greater character than Jones. That’s especially impressive considering his potential as a player.
The 6-foot-6, 321-pounder, who has the athleticism to develop into a franchise left tackle for whichever program he chooses, is raw but extremely talented. He still has room to improve, mainly because he didn’t play a down in 2010 after preparing for his junior season harder than he ever had before.
An opponent rolled on his leg in a freak preseason scrimmage accident last August, breaking his right femur and ending what should have been his breakout campaign before it ever started. He just recently gained medical clearance to begin running again.
“It’s unexplainable,” said Jones, who isn’t expected to miss any time in 2011. “It was rough, but I try not to focus on it too much. It was devastating.
“I’ve worked incredibly hard. It’s been a journey, but we’re getting there. Anybody coming into their senior year is going to be more motivated than they ever were. It’s my last shot to win a championship with the guys I grew up playing with. I’m going to work extremely hard.”
USC, Clemson, Kentucky, East Carolina and Illinois are among the schools that have offered Jones already. With no game tape from 2010, the big boys are waiting to see him either in camp this summer or during the 2011 season before deciding whether or not to offer. Alabama, Virginia Tech and Georgia are among the schools that have been in contact with Liner in recent weeks.
“They are all saying that he’s an offered guy, but they want to see him,” Liner said. “Everybody knows that he looks the part, but they want to see him move.
“Coach [Brad] Scott from Clemson came over to me last year and said he was one of the best ones he had ever had in a skill camp. He’s not a big, fat butt. If you watch him move, he looks like an NFL tackle now. I think he can play either tackle.”
Jones is planning to make a decision either this summer or early in the 2011 campaign, allowing him to focus on what he believes is most important: winning a state title. Jones isn’t interested in playing the “games and charades” that have become commonplace in recruiting, and Liner believes that once he makes a decision, it will be final.
“I’m just going to go out and play,” he said. “No pressure. No pressure.
“The team is what comes first. If you want your team to be successful, you’ve got to put them ahead of yourself. It gets tougher to do that during the recruiting process, but I’m trying to do that. I’ve made an effort to put Ninety Six ahead of myself. That’s why I kind of put recruiting on the backburner.”