ST. LOUIS — Barrett Jones entered the National Football League as one of the most decorated offensive linemen in college football history.
A key member of three national championship squads at the University of Alabama, Jones earned All-America honors at three different positions to help fill team needs. After making 25 starts at right guard in 2009 and 2010, he was the Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top interior lineman in 2011 as a left tackle and picked up the Rimington Trophy as the country’s best center the next fall.
But Jones, chosen by the Rams in the fourth round (113th overall) of the 2013 draft, spent much of his rookie season on the sideline after being injured late in his college career.
The Lisfranc foot injury occurred early in Alabama’s victory over Georgia in the 2012 SEC championship game, but Jones finished the game without most of his teammates knowing he’d been hurt. Four weeks later, he played through the pain as the Tide blasted Notre Dame 42-14 to win the national crown.
Following the season, Jones had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left foot. He was unable to take part in the NFL combine or participate in the Alabama pro day. More important, the injury left him unable to train.
“It definitely set me back. I couldn’t run or lift or do anything, really,’’ the 24-year-old from Memphis recalled. “Last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I came in hoping to compete, but because of the injury and not being completely healthy, that obviously didn’t happen.
“It was frustrating, but it was also a learning experience. It’s tough when you go from the top of the totem pole in college to the bottom in the NFL, carrying pads and things like that. But it helped me grow a lot, not only as a player but as a person.’’
Jones saw limited special-teams action in the final four games of the 2013 season and built on that with a strong and dedicated offseason that has helped transform his 6-foot-4, 308-pound frame.
“My weight’s about the same, but I’ve lost body (fat) and replaced it with muscle,’’ he said. “I wish I had the specific numbers for you. ... I definitely feel like I’ve put in the work this offseason and that I’m where I need to be. I feel like I’m in really good shape and ready to ride.’’
Jones and the Rams are in the middle of their 10 spring practices, also known as OTAs. Last year, an injured Jones missed the on-field portion of OTAs.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but OTAs are key, especially for a young player,’’ he said. “It’s a time you can really work on your technique and get a feel for the offense because there’s more time to digest all you’re learning. And now, as a second-year player, I feel like things have slowed down even more. When you’re a rookie, you catch yourself thinking a lot. You think you might know the answer because you’ve memorized it on paper or seen it on film, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you’re out there with live bullets.
“When something happens on the field, you can’t think, you react. It has to become second nature.’’
It’s no surprise that Jones, who is working at center and guard, has picked up the Rams’ playbook quickly. In addition to his on-field success, he was also a winner in the classroom at Alabama, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting as a four-time Academic All-American. In addition, he earned the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell Award, commonly referred to as the “Academic Heisman.’’
“Any time you go through something or learn if for the second time, I think it’s going to be more clear,’’ he said. “This year, I just feel like I’m better prepared and in a better position to help the team.’’
Competition at the center and guard spots in training camp will be fierce. Scott Wells, an 11-year veteran, is back as the starter at center, with Tim Barnes, a third-year pro from Mizzou, and seventh-round draft pick Demetrius Rhaney providing depth. In the mix at guard are likely starters Rodger Saffold and first-round pick Greg Robinson as well as veteran Davin Joseph and second-year pros Brandon Washington and Travis Bond.
“I try not to worry about that,’’ Jones said when asked about the competition. “Coach (Nick) Saban, my coach at Alabama, always talked about controlling the things you can, and I think that’s the lesson here. I can’t control the personnel or who’s playing what position.
“All I can do is make sure that I show up and work hard every single day.’’