BEREA — Luke Wypler remembers exactly when he witnessed Dawand Jones’ freakish athleticism for the first time. It was the day they met while Wypler was on a recruiting visit to Ohio State.
“I was with a few other guys on the team and they all went to play basketball,” Wypler told The Chronicle-Telegram on Thursday. “This is back when he was still 415, 420 (pounds). He was on that court covering point guards, I was like, ‘Oh, my god, this is unbelievable that someone this big is able to move like that.’”
Jones (6-foot-8, 374 pounds) is the story of the week as he’ll make his first NFL start Monday night in Pittsburgh at right tackle and be charged with blocking outside linebacker and 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. Wypler probably knows Jones better than anyone with the Browns after spending three years together in Columbus before Jones was drafted in the fourth round in April and Wypler two rounds later.
“He’s a very, very cool, easygoing guy,” said Wypler, a center. “I think that’s what he’s going to carry over into the game and he’s going to play just fine.
“I’m excited to see what he’s able to do on Monday night.”
Jones came off the bench in the second quarter of the opener last week when two-time All-Pro Jack Conklin went down with torn knee ligaments. Conklin is headed for surgery and done for the season, so the starting job belongs to Jones.
He won’t have any time to ease into the role. Watt is a three-time All-Pro who had three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in Pittsburgh’s 30-7 opening loss to the 49ers.
“Big task at hand,” Jones said Thursday. “Can’t wait, honestly. I couldn’t ask for nothing else.
“Great player, great guy. I’ve been watching film nonstop. That’s already me but had to be on top of it for sure this week. Just knowing he has so many moves in his arsenal, just got to stay sound.”
Jones expects the Steelers to “definitely make me a target.”
“I have to step up to the plate, step up to the challenge,” he said.
Jones replacing Conklin wasn’t a given. James Hudson III was a fourth-round pick in 2021 and started seven games in his first two years as Conklin battled injuries.
The tackles were told the depth chart during the week before the opener, and as Conklin was driven off the field on a cart, Hudson stood in the middle of the field to give Jones a pep talk before his first NFL snap.
“There’s probably some words I can’t repeat, but he definitely gave me some good confident talking, ‘Nobody can mess with you. Once you play to your length and your strengths, nobody can really get around you,’” Jones said.
Hudson had been in the same spot, being suddenly thrust into action.
“I was just telling him to trust himself, go in there and play with confidence,” Hudson told The Chronicle on Saturday. “Just be him. Don’t let anything throw him off. Just wanted to tell him keep his head on, just let if fly, have fun.”
Jones’ quick ascent followed slow starts to rookie camp and training camp. Under intense supervision by veteran line coach Bill Callahan and with a commitment to improve, his loads of potential started to be realized.
“He just keeps doing what he’s been doing, dominate every time he goes out there,” Wypler said.
Even though Jones faced a lot of talent in the Big Ten, including Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 pick of the Lions in 2022, Watt is a unique challenge. He’s got elite rush moves and a relentless drive.
“He just does not quit,” Jones said. “He has a motor of just nonstop moves and my major thing is if I get to limit him to some of them, using my length and my strength to my best ability, I can minimize whatever he has to throw at me.”
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) September 14, 2023
Jones will try to counter Watt’s ability to dip and turn the corner with size and wingspan.
“Kind of leaves the chest open a little bit during the pass game, so probably using that,” he said of Watt. “But there’s other things to it, making sure I get back. There’s a limited amount of things because he’s a great player, obviously, all around.”
Jones shared the credit for his quick progression. He was baptized by fire practicing against defensive ends Myles Garrett, Za’Darius Smith and Ogbo Okoronkwo and took pointers from Conklin on his punch and work ethic.
This was the first week he’s spent with the starting offense, which should help communication and cohesion. He needs to be in lockstep with right guard Wyatt Teller, particularly in the run game, where Jones has had more issues than in pass protection.
“I’ve seen a real focus,” All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio said. “It’s a big ask of him, but he is very focused on taking those steps to be ready to play.”
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) September 15, 2023
The focus must be balanced with calm under the intense spotlight of the Monday night lights.
“My emotions, they’re really the same every time I go into a game,” Jones said. “Never get too high, never get too low. So honestly, just play the game just like any other game.”
The quote didn’t end without reality setting in.
“It is primetime,” he said. “Everybody’s watching you, so you can’t let nobody down, can’t let yourself down, can’t let the team down and that’s just my main goal.”
Wypler believes Jones has the right temperament.
“I think all those emotions, yeah, it’s overwhelming, especially for a rookie this early on in the year who necessarily wasn’t maybe expecting to be in this position,” he said. “But I think like anything this sport’s just a game and something we’ve been doing for a very long time, so I think he’s going to be able to compartmentalize all those emotions and be able to go out there and execute really well.”
“I think it’s going to be a fun night,” Hudson said. “I’m excited for him. He’s excited. I’m ready to see him go ball.”
The guy in harm’s way is saying the right things about trusting the rookie.
“I’m very confident,” quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “He likes the challenge. He likes to be able to go out there and just play football and do whatever he can for this team, and he’s been learning from all the guys across the line, asking questions. He’s going to make sure that he’s ready and prepared to go.”
Even if Jones didn’t expect to be in this spot a week ago.
“But it’s here,” he said. “God wouldn’t put you in this moment if he didn’t want you here. So it’s up to me to go attack it and go grab it.”