It’s safe to say Dana Holgorsen knows the wide receiver position.
He played receiver at Iowa Wesleyan back in the 1990s, then coached that spot at Valdosta State and Texas Tech before becoming an offensive coordinator and head coach of some of the most explosive offenses in college football.
When he speaks on that position –and specifically the slot receiver spot –it’s worth paying attention. Now the head coach at the University of Houston, Holgorsen made a slot-receiver comment to his associate head coach and defensive coordinator Doug Belk that Belk didn’t forget.
One of the reasons the comment resonated was because it was about one of Belk’s guys. On the defensive side. This player, Holgorsen told Belk, had special receiving chops.
The player’s name? Marcus Jones, a cornerback and return man whom the Patriots recently selected in the third round of the NFL Draft.
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“[Holgorsen] coached a couple of Patriots legends, “Belk told the” Next Pats “Podcast this week.” He coached (Wes) Welker and (Danny) Amendola. He thinks that if Marcus played offense, his skill set was as good or better than those guys as far as getting in and out of breaks, the quickness, the hand-eye coordination, knowing how to use his body as an offensive weapon.
“If Marcus wasn’t as valuable as he was to our defense, he probably would’ve taken even more offensive snaps. But we wanted to manage his body throughout the season. He actually wanted to play more offense than we played him.”
Belk has a special connection with Jones. He recruited Jones to play at Alabama when Belk was working under Nick Saban. Jones ended up playing at Troy, but when Belk joined Holgorsen at Houston in 2019, and with Jones looking to transfer, Belk made it Over the last two seasons, Jones was one of Houston’s best players and one of the most productive defensive backs in the country.
At Alabama, Belk worked with first-round picks like Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey as well as Patriots second-rounder Cyrus Jones. At Valdosta State, Belk coached former Patriots corner Kenny Moore, who has turned into a Pro Bowl slot defender for the Colts.
Despite having seen big-time NFL talents up close, Belk will tell you it’s Jones who’s the stickiest cover man he’s coached. The only “weakness” to his game, Belk says? His frame, which checks in at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds.
Jones won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player last year, picking off five passes and breaking up 13 more. He was also arguably the top returner in the country, racking up 14.4 yards per punt return. He had two punts returned for touchdowns and two kickoff scores as well.
According to AthlonUSC’s Adoree Jackson (2016) is the only other college football player in the last two decades to have two or more kick returns for touchdowns, two or more punt returns for touchdowns, four picks and an offensive touchdown in a season. Jones caught 10 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown for the Cougars last year.
Even at his size, Jones’ physicality and ball skills look like they’ll play on defense and special teams at the NFL level. Longtime NFL Films analyze Greg Cosell compared him to All-Pro defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. What Jones might be able to add to the Patriots offense, though, makes his selection even more intriguing.
The Patriots haven’t featured a low-cut slot man in their offense for some time now. Jakobi Meyers has been a productive interior receiver for them, but he’s a different type of player than Troy Brown, Welker, Amendola or Julian Edelman.
If Jones is deployed on the offensive side –and we know Bill Belichick won’t hesitate to flip a player from one side of the ball to the other –he could provide an explosive and shifty playmaker for Mac Jones in the short-to -intermediate area of the field. Even as a gadget option, Jones’ long speed and yards-after-catch ability could give the Patriots offense a spark.
“In packages, I think [he could be used as a receiver]”Belk said.” I don’t know that he’s not as good on offense as he is on defense. Because if you watch him when he catches the ball on defense or when he touches the ball on a punt return or a kick return , you almost have to hold your breath.
“He’s that good with the ball in his hands. He’s even harder to tackle than most offensive players we play on a weekly basis, based on his change of direction and balance and body control. There’s typically not one guy ever tackling him.”
Jones is recovering from shoulder injuries that prevented him from working out prior to the draft, but he’s expected to be ready for Patriots training camp. He was scouted as a corner and return man, but it’ll be fascinating to see if he sees any reps on the offensive side this summer in Foxboro, indicating that the Patriots drafted themselves a potential slot option in the spring without anyone really realizing it.