Sometimes life’s inflection points come down to fairly black and white, binary decisions.
In the case of Indiana offensive tackle Caleb Jones, the choice was this — his father’s ribs, or the NFL.
Jones’ size has always been a topic of conversation since his arrival in Bloomington in 2017. At 6-foot-8 he has always stood out above the crowd, even in football circles where almost everyone is above average size. But Jones’ weight has been as much of the story, and for him it has been the aspect of his massive frame that has always been a challenge. He has been listed at as much as 370 pounds on Indiana’s official roster since he came to Bloomington from Lawrence North High School, but that figure was north of 400 when he first arrived and has yo-yo’d up and down since.
When away from IU Jones has a temptation that hits close to home. His father James owns the His Place Eatery on 6916 East 30th Street in Indianapolis. The chicken and waffles, ribs and soul food establishment is a favorite of Caleb’s, but as he prepares for his redshirt senior year with an eye towards playing on Sundays, dad’s food is off limits.
“I sure haven’t been able to eat at my dad’s restaurant too much, haven’t been down there in a few months, it has probably been for the best even though I want that food bad,” Jones said on Friday afternoon.
Helping Jones make nutritional choices that will help him reach the NFL is someone who knows very well what it takes to make it in the league.
Jones is coming off of a 2020 season that for him was a disappointment. The lack of a formalized in-person training program due to the pandemic meant Jones didn’t have someone looking over his shoulder for much of the offseason. He was a step slow, something that quickly became apparent in week one against Penn State. Jones never really regained his 2019 Big Ten Honorable mention form, let alone take the steps forward that he needs to show NFL executives. He knew something had to change soon if he was going to salvage his professional ambitions.
So Jones turned to second year strength coach Aaron Wellman, who came to IU from the New York Giants.
“I think Coach Wellman has been really, really, good (for Jones),” offensive line coach Darren Hiller said. “I think Coach Wellman, coming from the NFL, which Caleb has those aspirations, I think the light bulb came on in that regard.”
Working with Wellman since January, Jones trimmed down in the spring and he is now at a place he hasn’t been in more than five years.
“Right now I am kind of sitting around 350, which I have not played at 350 pounds since I was a sophomore or junior in high school,” Jones said. “I’m at a really good weight that I feel a lot better at. I feel faster when I’m moving. I feel like I have a lot more wind. At the end of the day that’s what it’s really all about is being able to play with nothing holding me back.”
Indiana isn’t particularly deep on its offensive line and Jones will likely be counted on to take on the biggest responsibility on the team — the protection of quarterback Michael Penix, Jr.’s blindside.
Hiller believes Jones is better equipped than ever to take on that task.
“[His fitness] it’s showing up from a quickness standpoint. He just looks better running, changing direction and all of the movement that he’s doing out there. It just shows up,” Hiller said. … “He’s moving a lot better, and I can tell you he looks a lot better. I’m watching the film and you know how it is; when you’re around the guys every single day and you see him on a consistent basis you kind of forget what they used to look like. We were throwing on some film of 2019 and 2020, going back and looking at some things, and it was drastic when you looked out there and you see No. 77 in those two years compared to right now. I look forward to him having a great football season.”
Hiller has been with Jones throughout his entire career at IU, and he says his massive tackle has always been willing to put in the work, and always had a positive attitude.
But Jones has always needed to find another level in his dedication to his fitness — a professional level of focus. And he has had to find a way to resist the temptation to head up to His Place.
“He and I have had these conversations since 2017 and I think he finally in January really committed to it,” Hiller said. “He’s a guy who when he has been in the building has always been great. He always worked – whether it would be in the weight room or on the practice field – it was always just a matter of what was he doing when he was outside of the building and the weight room. He battled that.”
Jones doesn’t shy away from the fact that his 2020 season didn’t go well. And while he could technically play for IU again in 2022, he seems to have put the pressure on himself to make sure this season is the one that gets him into the league.
“Last season I did not perform the way that I should have and did not reach the goal I had in mind,” Jones said. “I am sure a lot of people saw that in the way that I played, so this offseason was all about getting my weight under control, working as hard as I can so I can maximize the talents that I have this final season. I am making sure that I am working hard and leading my teammates.”
And Jones is also making sure he avoids his favorite food back up in Indianapolis.
But while his father’s food is off limits for now, that doesn’t mean he can’t do a little marketing to give a boost to what has been a tough 18 months for those in the restaurant business.
“I am 100 percent partial to my dad’s ribs, I absolutely love ribs and my dad has a great dry rub on his ribs. You guys should all go check it out — His Place Eatery.”
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