As a child, Marcus Jones would watch the NFL draft every year and ask his mother, Viola, the same question: “Mama, how are you going to sit?”
Even at age 5, Jones had dreams of playing professional football and wanted to know how his mother would comport herself in the green room when the commissioner called his name. So, to the delight of her son, Viola would sit up extra straight, cross her legs, smile wide, and clap her hands.
“He’d be like, ‘OK, mama, you have to be ready, they’re going to call my name,’” Viola recalled. “I’d pose and we’d laugh.
“To me, it was just a little game. Every year, we would watch it and we would say this.”
Flash forward to 2022, when the Patriots selected Jones, a 5-foot-8-inch cornerback and return specialist at Houston, in the third round, 85th overall. Inside their home in Enterprise, Ala., Viola couldn’t help but remember the playful back-and-forth the two shared year after year.
“It just actually happened,” she said. “I didn’t have that look, though. I always said I was going to have the look, I was going to be ready. It wasn’t like that at all. I tried, but oh my God.”
Instead, emotions flooded through the Jones family. The moment culminated years of hard work for Marcus, who had a decorated college career at Houston after initially struggling to earn recognition during the recruiting process.
Always considered too small for his position, Jones proved, with his athleticism and high football IQ, that he could compete at every level. Now he’ll get a chance to do so in the NFL.
The Patriots, who begin their full training camp this week, have an opening at punt returner following the departure of Gunner Olszewski, and also will have a competition for playing time at cornerback alongside Jalen Mills.
“That was his dream,” said Jones’s father, Marc.
“There was a 1 percent chance that it would actually happen,” added Viola.
“Less than 1 percent,” said Marc. “But he just put his head down and kept fighting for it.”
As a child, every night before bed, Marcus would play the board game Trouble with his mother.
“If he would lose …,” Marc said.
“Oh, we’re going to play again,” finished Viola. “He’s going to be serious. He’s not going to talk. He’s not happy. He just wanted to win.”
Viola would try to tell her son that he was taking the game too seriously, that they were just playing for fun. But he would insist, “No, mama.” Marcus wanted to win.
That competitive nature, unsurprisingly, fueled a love for sports. The easiest way to get him to pose for a photograph was to put a ball in his hands, according to his mother. Marcus participated in several sports, including golf, soccer, baseball (pitcher and first baseman), basketball (point guard), and track and field. But football was by far his favorite.
“Look, you don’t know how serious it was with football and this little kid,” Viola said. “We had a hurricane coming. We were in Louisiana. He goes into his bedroom, he gets his rain boots, and he gets his football and puts his football helmet on. He wasn’t packing clothes. None of that. He got his football and his football helmet.”
That’s often how young Marcus would be dressed. Every Sunday afternoon, he would put on his football jersey, shoulder pads, and helmet to watch the NFL.
“He was ready,” Viola said. “Like he’s playing.”
Viola and Marc signed up Marcus for his first football team when he was 4, when all you could see on the field, in Viola’s words, were “helmet and legs.”
The family was living in Ohio and moved around quite a bit throughout Marcus’s childhood because Marc was in the military. No matter where they were, Marcus managed to impress with his athleticism, speed, and playmaking ability.
“All the football teams that we played on, when we left, they knew him,” Marc said.
Small but impressive
There was another thing that became clear about Marcus at a young age: his stature.
“Everybody was always bigger than him,” Marc said.
“Always,” added Viola. “I can remember when they’re sitting on the bench at a football game, everybody’s feet are touching the ground and his legs are just dangling.”
When Marcus arrived as a freshman at Enterprise High School (Ala.) in 2013, the conversation surrounding him typically included a conditional “if he grows …”
David Faulkner, Enterprise’s coach, estimates Marcus measured in at 5-feet-8-inches and 150 pounds as a freshman. Despite his size, Marcus turned heads. According to J.D. Pruitt, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Marcus clocked a 40-yard dash time in the low 4.4s when he was a sophomore and he still holds school records for the three-cone drill and pro-agility shuttle.
“Being a high school strength coach, you see so many varying levels of athleticism,” Pruitt said. “You see a big offensive lineman that’s running and trying to change directions like he’s got two left feet. And then you have Marcus. It was just different. Even at such a young age, his agility and speed numbers were up there with some of our higher-level seniors.”
Because of Marcus’s size, smooth moves, and dynamic athleticism, Faulkner wanted him to play slot receiver, thinking he would win one-on-one matchups. Marcus, however, didn’t want to give up his defensive responsibilities.
“His feistiness wanted him to go into being a DB,” Marc said. “DBs, they can get their hands on you. Once he locks onto a receiver, I mean, his teammates that practice with him, they used to always say, ‘Man, Marcus is like a pit bull.’ ”
Faulkner decided to dial back Marcus’s offensive role so he could focus on being a starting cornerback and return specialist.
The decision paid off. In Enterprise’s region, Marcus covered high-caliber players such as Henry Ruggs, drafted 12th overall by the Raiders in 2020 out of Alabama, and Justyn Ross, who played at Clemson before signing with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in May.
“He was going to draw the other team’s best receiver,” Faulkner said.
Early on, opposing teams would target Marcus because of the obvious size disparity. In one game his sophomore year, Marcus was targeted on three straight goal-line fades. Every attempt resulted in an incompletion.
“He’s 5-8 and he’s covering 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 dudes that can really, really run and are very skilled,” said Faulkner. “You look across the field, and you’d be like, ‘Oof, that looks like a bad matchup.’ But he’s an exceptionally twitchy athlete.
“His jumping ability, his arm length — he’s got good arm length to be as short as he is — and a lot of other intangibles allow him to match up physically and athletically. They can’t run out from under him. If the ball isn’t thrown perfectly, he can really play it.”
In his junior year, against rival Central Phenix City, Marcus was tasked with defending Ross, a 6-4 wideout. Coaches drew up a play for Ross in hopes of getting a first down to seal the game, yet Marcus was able to leap to break up the pass. Marc still has a photograph of the moment.
“The photo there is symbolic of everything you have heard of Marcus — his ability to play bigger than what he is in stature,” Pruitt said. “He is literally elevating and jumping over Justin Ross and knocking a pass down.”
By his senior year, Marcus had gained 20 pounds and grown maybe an inch. His skill set and athleticism seemingly improved. That year, he set school records in track and field: the 100 meters (11.01 seconds), 200 meters (22.35 seconds), javelin (144-11), and long jump (22- 4.25).
“By the end of his career, you could tell opponents were reluctant,” Faulkner said. “They were trying to be very creative in how they got their receivers away from Marcus and how they created touches for those guys.”
When Marcus was growing up, he and his father would spend time in the backyard with a football. Marc would throw the ball high in the air andgive his son clear instructions: Locate the ball, look at me, find the ball again, and then take off in the opposite direction. The sequence, simulating a punt return, improved Marcus’s field vision at a young age and set the foundation for what was to come.
Marcus established himself as an elite return specialist in high school, often taking back punts and kicks for touchdowns, but Faulkner didn’t necessarily expect the scoring to continue.
“You’d think, ‘When he goes to college, it’ll slow down because they’ll be better at kicking it and covering it,’” Faulker said. “And then you’re just like, ‘Are you serious?’ He’s doing the same thing he’s been doing since he’s 14 years old. He just has a gift for it, a knack for it. He’s a fearless competitor.”
Over his final two seasons at Houston, Marcus returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. Before transferring to Houston, he returned four kickoffs for touchdowns at Troy.
“He had instincts for the return game,” said Jon Sumrall, Troy’s special teams coordinator, who was promoted to head coach in December. “He also had really great courage and confidence as a return man.
“I think a lot of times people don’t understand the courage it takes, especially as a punt returner, to stand back there and catch the ball that’s coming at a funny angle with people running full speed at you.”
In 2017 against Coastal Carolina, Marcus returned both the first and second kickoffs of the game for touchdowns. Sumrall called the performance “one of the more special things” he’s been around as a coach.
“Having the one is challenging and not easy in any regard because there’s so many things that have to go right,” he said. “It has to be a returnable kick and then there has to be enough quality blocking — with no penalties — and he has to have the requisite skills as a return guy to be able to make the play.”
At Houston, Marcus continued to change the game on special teams. Special teams coordinator Mark Scott was particularly impressed with Marcus’s film prep and how he could help the other 10 players on the field set up their blocks by taking a specific track.
The ball didn’t have to be in Marcus’s hands for his presence to affect the game. The Cougars blocked four punts last season, which Scott attributes to the fact that teams were selling out in their coverage because they wanted to prevent a big return.
“When you have somebody like Marcus back there, the other 10 guys know that if they do their job, they know that we’ve got a chance to really impact the game,” Scott said. “Having a guy like Marcus back there — he’s supremely confident, but it instills confidence in the other guys playing with him.”
It really happened
On Day 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Jones family hosted a small gathering that they hoped would turn into a joyful celebration.
With the broadcast projected on a 100-inch screen outside of their house, the Joneses, joined by family and friends, watched in anticipation. While most mingled outside, Marcus, along with his father and agent, waited in the garage.
“When the TV showed the 80th pick, his agent looked at me and said, ‘Patriots,’” Marc recalled. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘The Patriots just drafted him.’”
At that point, Marcus had gone inside to watch by himself. By the time his father found him, he was already on the phone with Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. A few minutes later, when singer Donny Osmond announced the selection on television, everyone erupted in screams, tears, or both.
But before the festivities got underway that Friday night, Marcus and his mother shared a long embrace.
“He put his head down and we just held each other,” Viola recalled. “A moment I’ll never forget.”