High school teammates embrace the “Dark Side” on the Broncos
“You underestimate the power of the Dark Side.” — Darth Vader, “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
While most of the attention surrounding the Broncos’ offseason moves was focused on the addition of quarterback Russell Wilson from Seattle and the absconding of pass-rusher Randy Gregory right under Jerry Jones’ nose in Dallas, the free-agent signing of D.J. Jones flew under the radar. It shouldn’t have.
Jones, considered the best interior defensive lineman in free agency and a darling of the analytics set, left the San Francisco 49ers for Denver’s three-year, $30 million contract. Now, the 27-year-old defensive lineman joins a new team with a new coaching staff, and a focus on leading the Broncos’ D-line — alongside his old Wren High School teammate, DeShawn Williams.
“It’s a blessing for things to come full circle like this. He knows my journey and I know his, and that’s what makes it’s that much more special. We’re both from somewhere,” Jones said about his friend from Piedmont, South Carolina. “We’re not supposed to be here, and the path that we took? Definitely not supposed to be here. To be in the same room and play side-by-side with our blood, sweat and tears, it’s special.”
Williams sits atop the Broncos’ depth chart at one of the defensive end positions across from fourth-year veteran Dre’Mont Jones, making it likely that the two high-school chums will start, shoulder-to-shoulder, against Denver’s opponents this season.
That re-formed line also has a new position coach in Marcus Dixon, and Dixon has gotten his charges to embrace their “dark side,” channeling their aggressiveness into tough and smart play.
“It’s something that Coach Dixon created for our defensive unit; mainly the D-line. It’s something we break down and something we live by now. You have to go into a dark place when you step onto that field, so it’s ‘Dark Side’ forever,” Jones said, before explaining exactly what that mantra means to him. “Some people like to go onto the field happy-go-lucky and cool, but we’re in the trenches — it’s not pretty down there. You don’t know what you’re going to get. You might get 40 double-teams in a game. You have to go somewhere where you know you’re going to defeat those double-teams. Your mind has to be somewhere where you’ve never been all week, and you have to prepare yourself for a battle. Every Sunday, Monday, Thursday — or whenever they decide they want to put the ball down — you have to go to a dark place.”
Fortunately for rookies Eyioma Uwazurike and Matt Henningsen, Jones’ dark side doesn’t extend to his mentorship of young players, saying on Tuesday, “(As) rookies, they caught onto the playbook really fast. They’re very physical and they want to learn, so that’s all that matters.”
Nor does it extend to the Broncos’ new coach in Nathaniel Hackett, who won Jones over quickly with his lighter touch at practice.
“He’s a different coach, especially (in comparison to) where I came from. I’m not bashing them at all, but it was to the book. There wasn’t any shooting (hoops) going on during team meetings or things like that. He brings a sense of enjoyment,” Jones said. “The first thing that came out of his mouth was ‘family.’ He’s very family-oriented. Families come out to practice, and come onto the field. I love it so far, and I love him.”
For Jones and his line-mates, embracing the challenge that lies, literally, directly in front of them — a historically great AFC West division, replete with dynamic, explosive offenses throughout — takes a certain, gritty mindset. Jones, in particular, soaks up double-teams like a sponge, freeing up teammates to make plays, and just like his signing with the Broncos, tends to get overlooked because of it. That’s just fine with him, however — D.J. Jones doesn’t need the spotlight. He’s not afraid of the dark.