Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Antonio Pierce took over as the head coach of Long Beach Poly High School going into Jack Jones’ junior season in 2014, and the player-coach relationship didn’t get off to the strongest start.
The Raiders’ interim boss was blunt back then in his first meeting with Jones, who didn’t know how to take the honesty of his famous new coach.
“He was like, ‘What position do you play?’ I said, ‘Man, I’m a (defensive back),’ and he was like, ‘You’re not no (expletive) DB, you play receiver,’” Jones recalled Wednesday. “At the time, I didn’t really believe it and I was disappointed, but it turns out he was right. That’s where I got all my offers from, that’s where I got all my pub from, that’s how I ended up going to a (Pac-12/ Division 1) school. But me being who I am, I had to prove to AP I could play DB.”
If he hasn’t already proven it enough by emerging as an All-Pac-12 selection cornerback in college and then getting selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Jones can now do it up close for Pierce.
The Raiders claimed the 25-year-old Jones off waivers after he was released by the New England Patriots earlier this week. Jones debuted in practice Wednesday at the Raiders’ Henderson headquarters and could contribute to the team as soon as Sunday’s Week 11 game at the Miami Dolphins.
Las Vegas has a cluster injury at cornerback with a pair of starters limited in Wednesday’s practice — Marcus Peters with a knee injury and Nate Hobbs with an ankle injury. Another spot starter, Amik Robertson, is in the concussion protocol while off-and-on starter Jakorian Bennet also exited last Sunday’s win over Jets and has been banged up off and on throughout the season.
Bennett was not listed on Wednesday’s injury report, but the position group is desperate for reinforcements even with him.
“I’m trying to help as fast as I can but I’ve got to learn the playbook, try to handle all that stuff,” Jones said.
Jones’ talent has never been in question as the bigger issue that’s held him back is his behavior. Off-the-field problems have hampered every step of his career, including his relatively brief time in New England.
Under Pierce’s watch in high school, Jones surged up recruiting ratings to become a consensus top 25-ranked player in the country and committed to his hometown USC Trojans.
But his tenure there was short-lived when he became academically ineligible after his sophomore season, and then was arrested for burglarizing a Panda Express restaurant.
Pierce, who was by then an assistant and recruiting coordinator with the Sun Devils, gave Jones a second chance. It worked as Jones stayed out of trouble and rebuilt his draft stock, though he still slipped farther than some analysts projected reportedly out of character concerns.
Legal woes cropped back up in New England as he was arrested this summer at the Logan Airport when Transportation Security Administration agents found guns in his carry-on luggage. The charges were dropped as Jones was sentenced to probation and community service but the relationship with the Patriots may have taken an irreparable hit.
He missed the first six weeks of this season with a hamstring injury and never reclaimed a starting role he was slotted to earn in training camp. The Patriots benched Jones for a stretch two weeks ago against the Commanders after he missed curfew at the team hotel according to reports, though he’s steadfastly denied the veracity of such stories.
Jones said he “can’t really speak too much” on his Patriots’ release because he has no understanding of why it happened.
“The kid’s been through a lot,” Pierce said Wednesday. “I’ve known him since he was very young obviously. He’s very well-documented. I’ve seen the growth and development. Nobody’s perfect. I don’t expect him to be perfect. That’s my job as well, to bring him along and our staff, our organization is there to help him if he needs.”
Notably, none of Jones’ public instances of trouble have come when he’s been with Pierce. The hope is that Pierce’s guidance can help Jones get back on track and realize his significant promise.
To coach Jones at three different levels is surreal to Pierce, but he’s got too much going on to get too sentimental about it.
“He’s somebody that gains depth for us in the back end, competition in the back end as well,” Pierce said of Jones. “A guy that can make plays on the ball…If there are players out there that can help our team overall, we’ll pick them up regardless of where they’re from.”
Pierce joked that the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Jones weighed “about 120 pounds” in high school as a possible defense of his decision to move him from cornerback to receiver.
There are a couple ironic parts about Pierce bringing Jones to Las Vegas, where they last teamed together in a 52-13 loss to Bishop Gorman in 2015 while at Long Beach Poly.
Most glaringly, it’s that Jones comes over from New England. Fired coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler drew criticism for making bringing on board so many former Patriots during their brief time in Las Vegas.
When Raiders owner Mark Davis first introduced McDaniels and Ziegler in early 2022, he spoke about their potential ability to identify and take on reclamation projects and build them up with the Raiders.
They might have done so in one instance when almost exactly a year ago they claimed former first-round pick defensive tackle Jerry Tillery off waivers from the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s since become an occasional starter and constant rotational piece in the middle of the defense, but there’s a chance Jones could be even more valuable.
There were concerns about his attitude late in his New England tenure, but no signs of anything but joy on his first day with the Raiders. He wore a permanent smile and mentioned it was a “blessing” to reunite with Pierce on a couple different occasions.
“I still got some fire behind me,” Jones said. “I kind of feel like I’ve got something to prove without going out of my way to prove it. I just want to show everybody I’m a good player and not somebody you can just shoo away.”