By Garrett Mitchell
Former Woodruff football star and long time Duke University defensive backs coach Derek Jones is an innovator.
Jones, one of the first college football coaches to understand the importance of social media with recruits, is taking his wealth of experience, track record of success, and modern approach to recruiting from Tobacco Road to the plains of West Texas where he recently accepted the position of associate head football coach, co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Texas Tech University.
The timing of the move, said Jones, was right after 12 years with the Blue Devils.
“I worked with (Texas Tech head coach) Matt Wells back in 2006 at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and I’ve maintained a good relationship with him as well as the defensive coordinator Keith Patterson,” said Jones. “Keith Patterson had previously tried to hire me at Pitt, West Virginia, and Arizona State and then again last year when they first got the job (at Texas Tech) and the timing just wasn’t right. They have always kept in contact with me and this year they made a change on the defensive side of the ball and basically came at me guns blazing, selling me on the vision they had and from a recruiting standpoint.”
It is Jones’ recruiting prowess that has made him such a sought-after commodity in the college football ranks.
In an ever-changing social landscape, particularly among high school athletes clamoring to get noticed by college coaches, Jones became one of the first to adapt to social media platforms such as Facebook and, later, Twitter, which young players used to promote their game films to garner the attention of potential suitors.
Using social media to connect with talented athletes across the Carolinas, Jones built a juggernaut secondary at Duke that consistently ranked among the top units in the ACC and nationally. That, said Jones, was one of the reasons Wells and Patterson wanted him at Texas Tech and one of the main reasons he decided to make the move.
“More importantly, it was how they wanted to use my social media presence in recruiting and attracting fans and excitement for Texas Tech football,” he said. “I wasn’t planning to leave (Duke), I wasn’t looking to leave, but sometimes the timing is just right. To be honest, I look at it as more of a blessing than anything else because my years at Duke have been wonderful. I have learned a lot from (Duke coach) David Cutcliffe. I respect those guys.”
Jones, whose secondary units at Duke were known as the ‘Cheetahs’, built that brand through his active presence on social media. The Cheetah brand is now coming with him to Lubbock, and as he establishes a new recruiting base in Texas, Jones plans to continue adapting to the changing landscape of collegiate athletics. Always looking not just for talent, but for character, Jones uses social media to find both. Online platforms, he added, can tell him a lot about a potential recruit and whether or not he will pursue that player.
“Social media over the course of the last seven or eight years has really become the main source of recruiting,” noted Jones. “Kids now, that’s all they do. Whether it’s Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram, they’re all involved in social media. As coaches that’s probably the first thing we do when we evaluate a kid and decide if we like him. We go to his social media pages to see if we can figure out something about his character and find out who else has offered him, where his interest lies, because his social media tells a story that wasn’t there to be told before.”
Jones added, “I decided many years ago at Duke to find a way to make us nationally relevant and social media gave me that avenue.”
Jones wanted a way not only to reach young athletes, but to inspire them as well.
Jones had a trove of inspirational quotes at the ready, reflections that he had used to motivate players for years. At the urging of friends and family, Jones consolidated those thoughts into a book, ‘AP2W’, which is an acronym for ‘Always Play to Win.’ Now, Jones uses his Facebook and Twitter feeds to pass along those thoughts with the hope they will reach an ever-growing number of youths.
“I always tweeted out information that I thought would be useful to high school prospects, high school coaches, high school teachers, parents, as a way of educating them on what we were looking for as coaches,” Jones said. “I figured a lot of coaches wouldn’t rival me in that regard because a lot of coaches aren’t going to be that persistent on social media. It became a big hit and kind of gave me a separate identity from others in my profession.”
Jones is still old-school in a sense, however. That comes from his days as a Wolverine, playing for Coach W.L. Varner. He admits that he was at first reluctant to embrace a new form of recruiting.
“I don’t think it was difficult (to use social media) but I will say I was reluctant early on,” he said. “I just didn’t understand how these social avenues worked. But when you get to the collegiate level, especially the Power 5 level, you have to have a lot of help. I credit a lot of graduate assistants that helped me along the way to discover a lot of new avenues.”
Jones has seen his share of the college football universe. After graduating from Woodruff, Jones went on to play for Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference. Following his playing career, he spent a season as a graduate assistant at Ole Miss before departing for coaching stints at Murray State, Middle Tennessee State, Tulsa, Memphis, and then to Duke in 2008.
Jones has not taken long adjusting to his new team and new home, however. In Lubbock he sees many of the same characteristics of a football-crazed town that made the Friday night lights of Woodruff so special to him many years ago.
“You know, the transition has been amazing,” said Jones. “Texas Tech has a really strong fan base. The people in West Texas are really behind Texas Tech. There isn’t another institution out here that plays football so everybody in the area are Texas Tech fans. Every store you go in, every red light you stop at, you see Texas Tech logos on every car. What I have come to find out is, it’s a way of life around here. The reception to me was somewhat overwhelming. It’s just really good to see that people are not only going to embrace me, but embrace the brand that we are trying to put out there to get young men to come out here to West Texas to play football for Texas Tech University.”
Jones credits the game of football for shaping him into the man that he is today, something that he sees as a duty to pass along to each successive generation of players that come his way.
“It’s a blessing to still be a part of this game that has taught me so many lessons and allowed me to get a college education,” added Jones. “Knowing that this game can take a kid and put him in a position to one day control the rest of his life, I feel like I am an ambassador to go out and recruit these kids and help them have the same opportunities. It’s like an evolution. I look back and don’t really wish I could play anymore because I love coaching so much.”
No matter where he is, however, Jones says he is proud to represent his hometown. Through his social media pages, everyone in Woodruff and beyond will be able to follow Jones’ new journey as he begins work creating a new pack of West Texas ‘Cheetahs’ to play for the Red Raiders.
“I am proud and honored to be an ambassador for my hometown of Woodruff,” said Jones. “The support that the people of Woodruff have shown me throughout my playing and coaching career is something that I hold in very high regard. Just the feeling knowing you are representing your hometown and making the people from home proud, and motiving other young people to chase their dreams, is just something that inspires me to keep going. There is no place like home and I am grateful to have their support.”