Through four years and 49 starts, senior center Ben Jones been a part of some historic moments at Georgia.
He’s seen a pair of bowl wins, worked with first-round NFL draft picks, contributed to a 10-game winning streak, and quarterback Aaron Murray said Jones knows so much about the Bulldogs’ offense he could play quarterback in a jam.
Maybe that last bit is a stretch for the 6-foot-3, 316-pound Jones, but what’s clear is that his presence will be missed next season.
“It’s going to be sad being under center under someone else next year,” Murray said. “I know David Andrews, our backup freshman, is very excited about the opportunity, but Ben has just meant so much to this team with just his leadership, his maturity and understanding of the our offense.”
Few players have had as much of an impact on the Bulldogs in the previous four seasons. Jones has played in every game of his four-year career and has started since the Bulldogs played Arizona State in the fourth game of his freshman season.
Jones said he hoped but never predicted his career at Georgia would be so prolific. He came to the Bulldogs from Bibb County High in Centreville, Ala., a city of fewer than 3,000 people about 50 miles southwest of Birmingham. There, he developed his competitive spirit playing sports with his older brother, Clay, a 24-year-old first baseman with the Detroit Tigers’ Class A West Michigan Whitecaps.
“I think just from growing up, having an older brother who was very athletic, very good in sports and just always trying to go outside and compete against him and him usually beating me in everything,” Jones said. “It was just having that competition every day and just having that urge to want to win that bad and just keep every day grinding with him.”
Jones was a two-sport star at Bibb County, setting school baseball records and becoming a first-team all-state selection as an offensive guard with Scout.com ranking him as the 2008 class’ No. 5 prospect at center. He graduated high school early and joined Georgia in time for spring practices — “That was a rough spring,” he said — and was moved to center by former Georgia offensive line coach Stacey Searels.
“I remember my first snap was on the 1-yard line,” Jones said. “Coming out, I was like, ‘Oh, goodness.’ Coming in, I had snapping issues, so I never played center until I came to Georgia. (Searels) said he put his faith in me, and I had three pretty good years as center.”
As he made the transition, Jones found himself leaning on more experienced teammates, such as Cincinnati Bengals’ lineman Clint Boling and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, for guidance.
“As a freshman, Stafford would come up and say, ‘Hey, Ben, you’ve got him.’ It was that easy for him,” Jones said. “Now I’ve grown into that role, and I’ve been able to help the younger guys who are stepping up and playing and who have been a big part of our success.”
It didn’t take Jones long to develop into that kind of leader, too. After less than a year as a starter, he began to take on more and more responsibility, and his teammates and coaches noticed.
“Especially playing center, he has to take on more of a leadership role,” senior offensive tackle Cordy Glenn said. “I’ve definitely seen an evolution of leadership. I feel like Ben’s been a vital part of this team from a leadership point since his sophomore year.”
With the last of his college days coming Monday with start No. 50 expected against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, Jones already has some plans for the near future. He will train for the NFL combine in Florida and then return to Athens to train for a pro day.
But as Monday’s game nears, Jones said he still hasn’t felt the full emotional toll he expects from his final game at Georgia.
“It hasn’t hit me yet, really,” Jones said. “But we had our banquet, seeing the baby pictures coming across the screen, getting the captain’s award, getting the MVP, I thought, ‘Wow, this has been four years that have flown by.’
“I remembered sitting there my freshman year and seeing Mohamed Massaquoi walk across, then Stafford and all those guys. These were great players I’ve played with, and I’ve seen them make it to the big leagues and everything. Now it’s my time.”