DURHAM, N.C. – Duke associate head coach Derek Jones heads into his 12th season mentoring Duke's defensive backs in 2019. He joined the Blue Devil staff in January of 2008 and was awarded additional responsibilities as the associate head coach following the 2017 campaign.
A native of Woodruff, S.C., Jones lettered four seasons as a cornerback at Ole Miss from 1993-96. He received his start in coaching at Ole Miss in 1998 as a graduate assistant for football operations and recruiting. He then served as a defensive graduate assistant coach in 1999 with the Rebels under current Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. Jones and Zac Roper are the two on staff who have been with Cutcliffe at Duke since January of 2008.
With just one practice left before Duke’s annual Spring Showcase, GoDuke.com caught up with Jones for an an update on how the workouts are progressing.
GoDuke.com: You had so many underclassmen defensive backs gain experience last fall. How does that help your group this spring?
Derek Jones: “I think any time you’re young and you have an opportunity to get experience early in your career, it’s very, very valuable throughout the rest of your career. As a defensive backs coach, you have to understand that nobody comes in ready-made. You have to teach the elements of playing the position to allow them to be successful. The technique comes with getting reps, maturing and being able to grow. The fact that our young guys had to get out there in very critical situations and grow up really shows at this point of the spring.”
GoDuke.com: What is one thing you’ve wanted your unit as a whole to improve on this spring?
DJ: “I think the turnover aspect of it. Getting our hands on the ball and creating turnovers is a must because it’s so critical to the outcome of games. If you strip balls, get interceptions, stop drives or stop conversions -- we consider that a turnover as well -- those are good things. That’s the one thing we want to focus on because we had a very unsatisfactory season by our standards last year with turnovers. We only had four interceptions. We have prided ourselves and set a standard of having more than that. So naturally, that had to be a point of emphasis in the spring.”
GoDuke.com: How has Leonard Johnson adapted to the shift from safety to corner this spring?
DJ: “He’s vastly improved from day one to now. Last year taught us a lot with getting into situations where we were outmatched in size. Teams are going to the bigger receivers right now, so you need to have corners with size to match up. What we learned last year in the Virginia Tech and Miami games, and what we learned being able to put Brandon Feamster outside on some bigger bodies, is that you have to have that size. We looked at that last year when we had those injuries. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘If we can put Leonard Johnson outside on some of these guys, we’d have a better chance.’ But he had never practiced at that position and wasn't ready for it. It’s a lesson in coaching – you learn things from previous seasons. That’s one of the things that we, collectively with Coach Cutcliffe, agreed we would do.”
GoDuke.com: Josh Blackwell excelled in December’s Walk-On’s Independence Bowl. How has that performance carried over into the spring season?
DJ: “Maturity is the key aspect for Josh. I’ve known since we recruited him that he has the chance to be special. He does a lot of good things naturally. The one thing Josh does as well as anybody I’ve ever coached is run. When a guy runs like that, it’s a curse in a lot of ways because he won’t rely on the technique aspect of the position. Having played cornerback myself, I understand how hard it is to get the footwork and placement and basic fundamentals of the position down. Josh is now combining the technique part of playing the position with his speed. It’s showing up. It showed up in the bowl game. He’s better than he’s ever been since he arrived here.”
GoDuke.com: What have been your initial impressions of January enrollees Jalen Alexander and Tony Davis?
DJ: “I’ve been very pleased with both of them. I think each of those young men is exactly what we thought when we recruited them. One thing I liked about Jalen Alexander during the recruiting process was when I went to watch him practice, I loved his mentality. He was on a team with a lot of Division I prospects and I was watching him compete. I was watching him run from drill to drill. I was watching his intensity in the work he was doing in the drills. It just reminded me of the standard of what we want here, not only by position, but by leaders here at Duke University and by Coach Cutcliffe's standards. Jalen fit that mold. A lot of people termed him a little bit undersized, but I’ll take a guy like that all day long. Not only is he going to be a good player, but he’s also going to be that guy in the locker room who helps get guys to conform to what you want. For Tony Davis, he has all the measurables and all the tools you want. He is a little bit behind, because he is young, in some of the footwork but because he is so big and athletic he can make a lot of plays. Basically, you looked at last year with Brandon Feamster and now you’re moving Leonard Johnson over there to corner. We’ve also recruited that bigger body in Tony Davis. Tony is very, very athletic and has tremendous upside. Both of those guys have tremendous upsides.”
GoDuke.com: How has your recruiting and the flexibility of our defensive backs to play multiple positions helped build Duke’s defense?
DJ: “That’s the focal point. You don’t go at it saying, ‘I’m recruiting a corner,’ or ‘I’m recruiting a safety.’ We’re recruiting athletes who are versatile. One of the reasons we were able to survive the injuries to Mark Gilbert and Dylan Singleton in the secondary last year is that we had guys who were smart, but were also versatile enough to be able to learn and go out and play other positions. That’s been our recruiting philosophy for a while. Now what we’re seeing in the spring is us moving people around in the secondary and not having much of a drop-off. You’re going to have to have that to get through a college season because you can’t predict injuries.”
GoDuke.com: What does it mean to you to have been at Duke for the entire time Coach Cutcliffe has been here?
DJ: “It’s invaluable. That’s the one word I would say. Having been here at Duke University going on 12 years now, I’ve matured as a coach. When I first got here, like many other young coaches in their early 30s, I wanted to be able to coach at this place or coach at that place; what I thought to be the pinnacles of college football. After being here and learning lessons, seeing things transition, knowing longevity is a rarity in our profession and, more than anything else, just being able to come to work every day and learn from one of the best coaches in college football, or in any other sport for that matter, in Coach Cutcliffe has been invaluable. As I look back and reflect on my career, there are not many days in which I haven’t grown. All the lessons, all the things I’ve learned from Coach Cutcliffe will enable me to be anything I want to be in this profession and to do anything else I want to do in life. The opportunity to come coach and to recruit good kids is great. One day when this is all over with, and hopefully I’m in my rocking chair by then, and I reflect on my career, you will be able to say you made a difference at a place. To see what this place was when we got here and to see exactly where it is now, you know you’ve weathered the storm. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve had multiple job offers to go other places. Now, it’s not even much of a conversation between me and my wife when somebody calls. I love the job I have and the place that I’m at.”
GoDuke.com: How has your book #AP2W impacted you as a coach, both on and off the field?
DJ: “It is just a testament of who I am as a person, who I am as a husband and who I am as a father. The husband and father I am are due to a lot of lessons I learned from Coach Cutcliffe. Since day one of me being a graduate assistant for him at Ole Miss back in 1998 and 1999, those were the things he taught the team and taught us in staff meetings. I live to try and be an example of that. I think when you apply the things you say at home to your own family, the things you say to your family here, which are your players, and the things you say to recruits and their families, are things you have to live. The best example you can be for anyone is what they see you do, not what you say you do. The blessing for me is that I’ve had a platform to be able to share some of those experiences, share some of those moments and hopefully help somebody. You look at life and you assess what you’ve taught people and what you’ve learned from people. It’s a testament to the type of people you hang around. It goes back to what we were just talking about. The opportunity to be here at Duke University, to be with David Cutcliffe, allows me to be a reflection of the principles and standards that we’ve set.”
GoDuke.com: Who are the three greatest living musicians?
DJ: “I’d have say Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, a great song writer, great producer and great singer himself. Steven Tyler. They’ve been doing it for a very long time and you can’t argue with the things they’ve done. And for me, I’d have to say Al Green. I grew up listening to Al Green. I went to school in Mississippi, where the blues are big. Not only is he a guy who is great musician, but he’s a guy who has influenced other musicians. I think you measure your greatness by the people you influence.”
GoDuke.com: What’s the one food you could not live without?
DJ: “Hot wings. I know they’re bad for me, but I can’t do without them.”
GoDuke.com: What was your favorite toy growing up?
DJ: “GI Joe.”
GoDuke.com: Who would you like to live like for one day?
DJ: “My father, without a doubt.”