When D.J. Jones was a senior, he transferred to Wren High School in Piedmont, S.C., coming from a smaller program in the hopes of increasing his recruiting profile. One game into the season, coach Jeff Tate wasn’t pleased with his team’s slow start.
Tate challenged Jones to prove his status as playmaker. The response by the Broncos’ nose tackle — who signed a three-year, $30 million contract this offseason to be a centerpiece of Denver’s defensive front — accurately sums up Jones’ value as a run-stuffer both then and now.
“They were running a counter on us, and they pulled the guard, and D.J. tackled the guard and the running back at the same time, picked ’em both up like it was nothing,” Tate recalled. “The running back was like 225 pounds, the guard was like 300 pounds. And as he picks ’em both up and goes to throw them down, the ball comes out, and he recovers it.
“He came to the sideline and says, ‘You don’t have to worry about it anymore coach, I got you.’ He’s been that good before and ever since, and against the best competition, D.J. would have his best games. That’s why he’s in the NFL, that’s why he stayed there. This guy didn’t get there by accident.”
No accident, but he took a winding and unusual road nonetheless.
Three high schools, then junior college, then college football’s biggest stage for two seasons in the SEC at Ole Miss before the 49ers drafted Jones in the sixth round in 2017. He bootstrapped his way up the 49ers’ depth chart over his first couple of seasons before becoming a starter for three years.
Now with the Broncos as one of the primary pillars of the “Dark Side” defense, Jones is looking to burnish a reputation he earned with the 49ers. Last year, Jones helped San Francisco reach the NFC Championship with a banner season, starting all 17 games, with two sacks, two forced fumbles and a career-high 56 tackles.
“In San Francisco, I proved I’m one of the best run stoppers in the game,” Jones said. “My goal this year? To win. That’s why I embrace the ‘Dark Side’ as a mentality, as a way of life. I want to show these guys on the defense the way, and just let them know that it’s possible to get back (to where the Broncos once were).”
In that 2021 playoff run for the 49ers, Broncos defensive line coach Marcus Dixon developed a keen understanding of Jones’ impact on the line of scrimmage. Dixon, then an assistant defensive line coach for the eventual champion Rams, studied Jones’ play ahead of the teams’ showdown in the NFC title game, won 20-17 by Los Angeles.
Jones was all over the tape with a sack, a tackle, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit in the 49ers’ wild-card win over Dallas. Then he had four tackles in the divisional win over Green Bay. He followed that up with three tackles and a quarterback hit in the loss to Los Angeles.
“(He’s) explosive. Relentless. Strong. Run-stopper. Disruptive. All of those,” Dixon said. “I had a bird’s eye view from the coaches’ box and it felt like every time, 93 (Jones’ number with the 49ers) was making a play.”
Jones’ high motor has been a trait of his since high school. He began his prep career with one season at Daniel High in Central, S.C., where he played alongside Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins, Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson and fellow Broncos defensive lineman DeShawn Williams, who was a senior when Jones was a freshman.
“We knew there was something special about him even then,” Williams said. “You could tell from the way he moved because big dudes aren’t supposed to be that fast and quick, and by how he already knew how to use his leverage.”
Family circumstances led to Jones’ family moving for his sophomore and junior seasons, when he attended his father’s alma mater, Carolina High in Greenville. By the time Jones transferred to Wren as a senior, his grades were in trouble. He managed to straighten them out at Wren and had offers from Tennessee and Oklahoma State coming out of school.
But Jones wanted to increase his Division I offer list, and work on his studies, too. So he went the junior college route, enrolling at NJCAA powerhouse East Mississippi. There, Jones was a two-year starter at nose guard on a pair of national title teams as East Mississippi went 24-0; Jones ended up ranked as the top junior college defensive tackle by every major recruiting service.
“For him at that time, academically and athletically, (junior college) was the best decision,” Tate said. “I told him to go for a year and that people were eventually going to know who he was, if he did what he was capable of doing. Not every 18-year-old takes that advice because the world we live in now is very impatient. I wanted him to go to commit to working in class, commit to the training and game preparation so that he could get recognized. And he did.”
At Ole Miss, Jones quickly carved out a role, and started every game as a senior in 2016. When he got to San Francisco after being drafted No. 198th overall, his work ethic followed, and he took advantage of positional voids in front of him.
“All those interior guys in the NFL go through those growing pains, but he kept putting in the work, kept showing up and busting his tail and understanding that it takes time in the NFL for your time to come,” explained Chris Kiffin, Jones’ defensive line coach at Ole Miss and also a pass-rush specialist with the 49ers in 2018 and ’19.
“When D.J.’s opportunity was just about to come, we had an older, veteran nose tackle who we knew was going to move on soon, and D.J. was sharing time with some other guys. But he just kept performing, and he could rush the passer some, so when his time truly came he kept making plays and grinding his way into a starting role.”
Now with the Broncos, Jones’ NFL profile has risen, but his persona hasn’t changed. Gregarious and affable but quiet, intense and aggressive between the lines, Jones has already emerged as a locker room leader who demands respect from teammates on both sides of the ball.
On the field, center Lloyd Cushenberry said, “You can tell he’s one of those guys who came from the ground up and got it out of the mud.”
In the meeting room, defensive end Dre’Mont Jones describes the other Jones as “down to earth, with a scary exterior but he’s actually a really nice giant.”
And in all places, even if Jones is now one of the highest-paid Broncos after signing a deal that included $20 million guaranteed, he’s still the same humble guy who is quick to remind people that “being where I’m from, I’m not supposed to be here.”
But here he is, and on Sept. 12 when the Broncos open the season at Lumen Field in Seattle, it will be hard to miss the big man plugging up the middle of the Denver front.
“I feel like every great person gotta go through something, because there ain’t no (such thing as) a clean slate,” Williams said. “Some people take the hard route like (Jones) did, but I think that’s what makes you cherish the little things. Look where he it is now – so much is different but he’s still the same, and that’s what got him here.
“Around the locker room, we cherish his route a little bit more than just thinking he’s just some guy who signed this nice deal. We all know what he had to go through to get that deal, and you appreciate him more because of it.”