LSU's punter projected among nation's best.
LSU’s special teams unit is loaded with questions entering the 2003 season.
Who will replace outstanding return specialist Domanick Davis? Who will kick in place of the departed John Corbello? Who will take Ryan O’Neal’s spot as the lead coverage team headhunter?
The one sure thing in this phase of the game is senior punter Donnie Jones.
A Baton Rouge native, Jones enters his senior season regarded as one of the best at his position in the Southeastern Conference, indeed the country (the Sporting News has ranked him as the third best punter in the nation).
Jones has seen some of the best and worst times in his five years at LSU. Originally a recruit of former coach Gerry DiNardo, Jones has blossomed under Nick Saban and looks forward to his final season under the lights in Tiger Stadium.
“I guess I kind of look at (my final season) two ways,” Jones told Tiger Rag. “I’m really excited about it, but then I look back at the last four years here. My first year was rough with coach DiNardo, but coach (Nick) Saban came in with his staff and they’ve done a really great job turning everything around.
"My last three years here have been great. I’m going to be sad when it’s over because there are a lot of good people here.”
Jones has struggled with consistency for most of his career, but during the 2002 season things began to come together. He averaged 44 yards per punt and had a school-record 86-yard punt against Kentucky.
“That just goes to show you what can happen when you do the process right,” said Jones of the record-breaking blast. “What happened was I took short steps and I did everything I was supposed to do right, and it just went. The first punt I had kicked in that game went 34 yards, and that kind of played in my head because I was still kicking into the wind.
"The snap was low and the rush came up the middle and I just stayed short and got through the ball. It didn’t look like it was going that far, but then I looked at (Derek) Abney, and he was sprinting back, so I realized it was going a long way.”
Since the end of the 2002 season, Jones has worked hard to improve his consistency and has developed into one of the team’s senior leaders. His main goal in fall camp is to improve his consistency and hang time, as well as help tutor young kicking recruits Patrick Fisher and Chris Jackson.
“I had a chance to work with both of them this summer,” said Jones. “We went out and kicked on our own. Those are two guys who really have great potential to do well for us. They have great legs; they just have to come in and work on it. I’ll help them any way I can. They have a bright future here.”
“Last year, my distance was good, but I know I didn’t kick anywhere near to what I’m capable of,” he said. “I was really disappointed, and what I’ve worked on most in the summer is improving my hang time. I want to try and keep the ball in the 40-to-50 yard range, but if I can get great hang time then we can cover.”
The NCAA recently rescinded the halo rule that required coverage units to give punt-returners a cushion of five yards to allow him to catch the ball. With coverage units that will likely feature some young players, Jones knows he will have to help them to take advantage of this new freedom by giving them as much time as possible to wrap up return men.
Jones is working hard to improve his mental approach to his craft as well. In 2002, his first punt of the season went all of 12 yards. He knows that in order to develop some consistency in his kicks, he’ll need to use some of the skills that have helped him in another game he loves.
“It’s like when you hit a golf ball,” Jones says of punting. “If you try to kill a golf ball, it doesn’t go anywhere. When you hit a nice shot, on the next one you try to rip it and nothing happens. In punting it’s the same thing when you get a good kick. You want to try and better it on the next kick, and instead of being short and in a rhythm, you try and kill it. You have to just go out there and try and do it the same way every time.”
Jones has even worked with a sports psychologist to try and change how he looks at punting.
“If you’re backed up in your own end zone, don’t look at it as a pressure situation, look at it as a chance to get your team out of trouble,” he said. “All you can control is what happens from the time you catch it until you kick it.”
Saban has lauded Jones' offseason approach.
“Donnie made the highest score that I can ever remember a kicker making on the conditioning and strength test,” Saban said. “He’s bigger and stronger than he’s ever been, and he’s really showing more maturity in how he deals with frustration.”
As the 2003 season nears, Jones will continue to improve at his job.
This is his final season, and Jones also understands that he has a chance to show NFL scouts that he can kick on Sundays as well. Still, he knows that the true measure of how well he’s doing his job is his degree of anonymity.
“When you do something bad, that’s when people are going to recognize you,” says Jones. “When I do well, I’ll do well. I don’t expect anybody to tell me anything.”