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Jones' second chance won't go unappreciated

Published Sep. 13, 2005

If this keeps up, somebody will ask for a second opinion on Marcus Jones.

It was the start of Bucs minicamp and the former No. 1 pick, once diagnosed as a chronic failure, was the one standing out among the 77 players Friday.

Having shed nearly 20 pounds, Jones had a new physique. Lining up at defensive end, he had a new position. And with feet that danced so light they barely bent a blade of grass, he seemed to have a new lease on his career.

"As players, we were probably harder on him last year than (the media). We didn't know," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "But did you look at him now? I was watching him out there and I was like, "God, I hate to see him when he's in pads. Somebody is going to get hurt trying to block him.'

"I'm glad they moved him outside. Shoot, at least my job is secure."

Only four months ago, Jones was placed on injured reserve, his potential crippled by severe pain in both ankles that made every step feel like he was walking on shards of glass.

The problems did not seem serious at first. Jones sprained his right ankle at the end of the first week of training camp.

He battled back and played as a backup in the first three regular-season games before starting at tackle for the injured Sapp against the Dolphins, when he had his only tackle of the season.

But Jones' ankle never really improved. Then he sprained the left one. Just getting through practice was a painful struggle. He started missing workouts. Then games.

"If somebody hit me, I'd just fall," Jones said. "I couldn't do anything. I kept trying to tell all the docs I was having all this pain. I went from training camp where I was doing really well one week, to having a sprained ankle (the next).

"Have you ever seen a screw that's been stripped? You put that screw in there hoping it'll hold up. And eventually it's going to break or just give way. That's what it was like."

Standing in the cold at the Meadowlands during the Bucs' 31-0 loss to the Jets, Jones' ankles throbbed so badly he hardly could walk. Enough was enough. It was time to pull the plug on his season.

The Bucs sent him to Dr. John Uribe, the Dolphins' orthopedic consultant. After running tests, Uribe scheduled surgery for both ankles. Seven bone spurs were removed _ four from the right ankle.

"One was the size of a golf ball and the others were the size of little acorns," Jones said When the Bucs made Jones the 22nd overall pick in the '96 draft, he seemed as bulletproof as one of the superheroes in the comic books he collects. He was 6 feet 6 with a landscape of muscle wrapped around a 286-pound body.

If Jones' rookie season _ in which he tied fellow first-rounder Regan Upshaw with 25 tackles _ was a disappointment _ then '97 was much worse. Who knew if he would ever become a good player? Who cared? Jones was fast becoming a footnote in the Bucs' legacy of draft-day flops.

"It was depressing a little bit sitting there seeing guys and you know you're capable of doing the same thing they're doing seeing them take it to the next level," Jones said. "And it's like you're stuck. Your confidence gets down a little bit, you start looking around here and say what's going on around me? You start to question yourself."

Fortunately, the Bucs defense never really missed him. It finished third in the NFL.

"After they took some of the loose bodies out, we realized how much better it's going to be for him this year," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "Just watching him in the off-season, his mobility is so much better. I think it's going to be a big plus for him."

Jones is excited about his switch to defensive end, a position he played his junior season at North Carolina.

At 270 pounds, he has the quickness to become a dominant outside pass rusher and the strength to outmuscle blockers at the point of attack.

"He's feeling a lot better physically, he's moving better and I think he's excited about the change," Dungy said.

"We expect a lot from him and we think his best football is still ahead of him. I don't think he's going to be discouraged or anything. And hopefully, we can find a spot where he can fit and really play up to his ability."

Jones said: "After I had surgery, I was laying around in the hospital the next day. I was like, "Man, I've been given a second chance and I know what I can do.' There ain't nothing that's going to hold me back this time. That's the mentality I have right now."