Barrett Jones, one of the most successful offensive linemen in college football history, is dressed in his Sunday church clothes and wedged into the passenger seat of my rented SUV, calmly giving out directions. We're weaving our way through the suburban streets of Cordova, Tenn., having just spent an hour singing and praying together at Bellevue Baptist, the church Jones has attended since birth, and now we're eager to find and devour a hearty breakfast.
He gently encourages me to step on the accelerator, unless I want to be teased by his family for my inability to keep up with his mom, Leslie, who is deftly navigating traffic up ahead in her own SUV. This is what a good leader does -- he saves his teammates from potential embarrassment. And riding shotgun with me is one of the best leaders in the long and storied annals of Alabama football.
When Barrett Jones suggests something, people tend to follow, and it has very little to do with the fact that he's 6'4" and 306 pounds with hands the size of oven mitts.
We're swapping stories between stoplights when Jones brings up a subject that has dominated pre-draft conversation: the Mystery of Manti Te'o. "The whole thing is bizarre," he says.
Jones' perspective on the topic is particularly fascinating, but not just because he was the team captain and leader of the Crimson Tide offensive line unit that steamrolled Te'o & Co. in the national championship game, or because Jones and Te'o have been working out together for several months, training for the draft with a large group of players at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
I want to know what Jones thinks about Te'o because he and the former Notre Dame linebacker each represent opposite ends of a common NFL draft conundrum. As silly as the now-infamous imaginary girlfriend story might be, Te'o can't seem to shake questions about his character. (What did he know, and when did he know it?) Jones, on the other hand, is one of the few players in this year's draft whose character is so exemplary that it might be his best selling point. If Te'o can watch his draft stock slip because of a bizarre -- but ultimately harmless -- fake romance, why can't Jones' character help him hang on to a spot in the first three rounds while he rehabs a foot injury?
How much does character -- whether it's questionable or impeccable -- really matter when it comes to draft picks?
Jones says he can't help but feel pangs of sympathy for Te'o, an admission that seems ironic considering that just a few months ago he was one of the Crimson Tide linemen humbling the Notre Dame linebacker on national television as Alabama pummeled the Fighting Irish 42-14.
"Manti is a really nice guy. Just really nice," Jones says. "Every day, [analysts] are just hammering him on TV. Hammering him! 'Manti's draft stock is plummeting!'
"At IMG, the TVs are always on and it's so awkward. Did he make some mistakes? Yeah. But do I think he fabricated the whole thing? Definitely not. I think he got duped. It's just a hard situation to handle. I don't know what I would have done."
Of course, it's difficult -- maybe even impossible -- to picture Jones getting mixed up in the kind of mess that turned Te'o from a Heisman finalist into a talk show and Twitter punch line. If Jones had been interested in protecting his draft stock, he might have sat out against Notre Dame and started rehabbing the Lisfranc injury he suffered in his left foot during the SEC championship. But Jones wouldn't even entertain the thought. He is the rare college football player who has been successful in virtually every aspect of his life, the kind of amateur athlete the oligarchy of NCAA administrators probably wishes it could clone. A four-year starter at Alabama and an All-American at three positions, Jones helped the Crimson Tide win three national championships during his career. Along the way, he earned straight A's on the way to both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in accounting in 4 1/2 years.
"Some people feel like they have to be good at school, and they really stress about it," Jones says. "I never really stressed about it. I just kind of did it. I have a desire to be excellent at everything I do."
During college, he helped organize two missions to Haiti to help with disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake killed 316,000 people and left the country's infrastructure in ruins. It was difficult to find a flight into Haiti, so and he and several members of his church booked a flight to the Dominican Republic and drove across the border. They helped rebuild a school and an orphanage in Port-au-Prince and spent days fixing basic amenities like showers and toilets. Some days, they did nothing but hand out food.
"I just felt like I wanted to help," Jones says matter-of-factly when asked what motivated the trips.
His selfless approach also hasn't been limited to working in foreign countries. When tornadoes tore apart Tuscaloosa in April 2011, Jones walked door-to-door with his chain saw to help clear debris to make sure people could stay safe amid the rubble.
What does any of this have to do with football? Very little in the eyes of some people. But it's a good example of how Jones tries to live his life, putting other people first. A top recruit coming out of high school, he spent two years as a starter at right guard for the Crimson Tide, including 14 games as a redshirt freshman when Alabama won its first national championship in 17 years. Unable to find a suitable left tackle in 2011, Alabama coach Nick Saban and his staff asked whether Jones would give the position a try, and he responded by giving up only three sacks all season. He won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in college football, and Alabama won another BCS championship.
"I was actually a little surprised at how well I did there," Jones says.
In Jones' senior year, it happened again. Alabama couldn't find a replacement for center William Vlachos, who had graduated, and so Jones agreed to switch positions once more and anchor the line. It gave the Tide a chance to insert sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, and Kouandjio looked like a future first-round draft pick. Meanwhile, Jones won the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the nation's best center, and Alabama won its third championship in four seasons.
"I feel like some people think I moved [to center] because I got beat out, and they had to find somewhere else to put me," Jones says. "That wasn't the case. It was more like Coach Saban wanted to play the best five people we had. If there is a better No. 2 left tackle than there is a No. 2 center, why wouldn't you want him to play?"
The Te'o mess has made me wary of simple narratives, so I'm trying to be on high alert for signs that Jones might be too good to be true. But everywhere we go, people seem to be drawn to him as if he's running for office. They're looking for fist-bumps or begging for a "Roll Tide!" as we pass them on the sidewalk, and he always obliges.
Jones is ridiculously polite, almost to a fault. When we're seated at the Italian restaurant where Jones' family frequently grabs Sunday brunch after church, our overworked server twice forgets to bring him water, and eventually Jones sighs and gives up trying to get his attention, then plows through his Mexican omelet.
"Just think of this as a good opportunity for you to show us all what a loving, forgiving Christian you are," teases Jones' father, Rex, a wise-cracking high school administrator who played college basketball for the Crimson Tide in the early 1980s.
Saban isn't shy about telling people how he feels about Jones. "I don't know [anyone] on our team who doesn't like him," Saban said after the BCS championship game. "That's saying a lot. You could never say any of those things about me."
The 61-year-old Saban not only considers Jones one of the five best players he's ever coached, and one of the "top people in the history of college football," he'll even go so far as to say Jones is one of the five most influential people in his own life. He doesn't so much answer questions about Jones as he does recite a monologue he's written to sell me on Jones' virtues.
"I think Barrett has just a genuine, great character about him," Saban says. "He has great thoughts, habits, priorities. He's compassionate. He's willing to serve other people. The team is important to him. For a guy his age, he's always shown tremendous foresight for what he wants to accomplish, and what he wants his team to accomplish. You just don't find very many young people who have that well-diversified center about them. He's well-spoken, he really respects and appreciates other people. He's very positive. He's responsible. He's a very hard worker. It's so rare to find a combination of all those things in one person."
Why, then, is the NFL so lukewarm on Jones as an NFL prospect? Scouts have questions about his feet and strength, and doubts about his athleticism. He's projected, at best, as a second- or third-round pick. Good character, says Lions coach Jim Schwartz, can make a scout or a GM more comfortable, but only so much. "The one thing you want to try to avoid having is a reason other than athletic ability for why the guy doesn't succeed," Schwartz says. "I think good character makes you feel stronger about your evaluation because it will cushion a little bit of the volatility that comes with drafting anybody. When you're in a people business, you don't know everything."
But ultimately it comes down to what teams see on tape. One longtime NFL scout believes Jones was one of the most overrated linemen in college football last season.
"He's just an average player," the scout says. "He's probably a fifth-round talent. But if you throw in all the intangibles -- work ethic, intelligence, toughness, competitiveness, instincts -- then it's a feel-good pick, something that will make the owner and the media happy. But it shows you what a joke those college awards are. He's never going to embarrass you off the field, but he'll probably be a backup forever. He could succeed in the right system, but he's just not very good."
Saban finds that analysis to be perfunctory -- at best -- when I relay some of what I've heard. For example, how do you quantify a player's ability to recognize a blitz he's seen on film only once and change the pass protection at the last second in front of 90,000 rabid LSU fans? Anyone can see it on film. It takes a highly analytical person to do those kinds of calculations in real time.
"I think it's a lot easier to recognize someone's physical talent and ability than it is to really evaluate their character," Saban says. "I don't think there is any question [Jones can have a 10-year career in the NFL]. A lot of guys spend just as much time preparing for the game, but when the game comes and things happen fast, their ability to anticipate what's going to happen is not nearly as good as someone like Barrett. Let me put it this way: He's not just a guy who could play bass guitar. He could get up lead the whole band and understand how it all fits together."
Who's to say Jones isn't the next Jeff Saturday or Matt Birk? Both were cerebral players who failed to impress scouts before they entered the league, but each went on to have a stellar career. Birk played 15 NFL seasons, Saturday played 14, each won a Super Bowl ring and each made it to the Pro Bowl six times.
When we finish breakfast, Jones and his parents invite me back to their house, where Rex builds a fire and we sit in the living room and talk about football and family and music for more than an hour. Barrett's younger brother, Harrison, is a tight end at Alabama, and his youngest brother, Walker, is a high school senior who is headed to Tuscaloosa in the fall to play linebacker for the Tide. The family Labrador, Rose, is curled up at Jones' feet as he tries to convince me he won't be upset if he slides even further down the draft. "I'd rather be drafted lower if it means going to a place where I can win," Jones says. "I love winning a lot more than I love money."
Leslie Jones, though, can't resist ribbing me about an ESPN report that ran two months ago claiming one of the concerns NFL teams have about her son is that he has "short arms." As it turns out, his arms are 34 1/8 inches, essentially the same length as Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel's, who likely will be the No. 1 pick.
"I couldn't wait for teams to measure him at the combine, because I knew that wasn't true!" Leslie says. "I've been buying him shirts for years, and they all stop halfway down his forearm."
Jones admits it's been a little frustrating that some teams seem to be looking for reasons he'll fail instead of reasons he can succeed. He's been obsessive about mastering just about everything he's ever done. During Jones' senior year of college, he joined a bowling league with friends. It was supposed to be relaxing and fun, but soon he was sneaking back to the lanes in his spare time, practicing by himself for hours, until he could roll games in the 200s. No one was willing to come right out and say it at the combine, but Jones couldn't help but suspect that teams were looking at his 4.0 GPA and his master's degree in accounting and using it to privately question his desire to be a professional football player. Will he run through a wall if they ask him to? Or will he have one eye on Harvard Business School or a political campaign?
"Almost every coach asked me why I play football, and I kind of feel like that's what they were getting at," Jones says. "I told every one of them: 'Look, I could do a lot of other things with my master's degree. And you might look at that in a negative way, but I look at it as a positive. There are other things I could be doing right now, but that's how much I love football. I'm here right now, and I want to play this game for as long as I can. I don't want to do other things.' "
It's no secret that future NFL players who can be described as Renaissance men when they're coming out of college also often carry a certain stigma that's difficult to shake. Myron Rolle, a former first-team freshman All-America safety at Florida State who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2009, says he experienced that stigma firsthand during his brief NFL career with the Titans and Steelers.
"It's weird to say this, but guys who have questionable character, guys who have maybe done some unsavory things, they sort of provide an edge that teams are often looking for," Rolle says. "[Coaches] look at those guys and think, this guy is going to go to war for me; he'll go to the edge for me. With guys who speak properly, have a 4.0 and play the violin like Barrett, they may think he's going to do more thinking than reacting or fighting.
I saw that and I felt it during my career. I hope it doesn't happen to Barrett, because he's a really talented player. It's a league that recycles a lot of the same thoughts, and I think some creativity and perspective get lost."
One doesn't have to search very hard for evidence of how hardwired Jones is as a competitor. You need only look at the closing minutes of the BCS championship game against Notre Dame, with Alabama leading by four touchdowns. Tide quarterback AJ McCarron was trying to get a play off with the clock winding down, but Jones -- who calls out the blocking schemes at the line -- wouldn't hike him the ball because they couldn't get on the same page about the scheme of the play. McCarron threw a fit after Alabama drew a delay-of-game penalty and barked at Jones with their face masks pressed together. Jones responded with a two-handed shove into his quarterback's chest.
"People thought, you and AJ don't get along because you pushed him!" Jones says. "We get along great. We're just both passionate and competitive about what we do. We had a disagreement about the snap count. It wasn't a big deal. We hugged 30 seconds later."
Jones pauses for a second, but he can't resist adding one final clarification.
"I was right, by the way," he says. He's smiling, but he's dead serious.
It's possible that Barrett Jones will flounder in the NFL and that his time at Alabama will represent the pinnacle of his football career. But the possibility also exists that the eye test is a superficial way to predict what comes next. Every year, NFL teams end up gambling on players who have failed a drug test, been arrested for assault or kicked off their teams, and they're frequently burned by those risks. This year, someone picking in the first round will almost certainly ignore the bizarre soap opera of Te'o's senior season and predict he'll be a success.
Isn't believing that the same can be true about Jones just a different leap of faith?