For three years, Deion Jones put into practice the patience his father Cal instilled in him from a young age.
He made only one start for LSU before his senior year, serving as a backup linebacker and special teams player while biding his time. But Deion flourished during his final college season, vastly improving his draft stock to become a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2016.
“You stay humble and patient and be a team player,” Cal said he often told Deion. “Wherever they need you, you play football. Wherever you’re needed, that’s where you go.”
The conversations about patience kept Deion grounded at LSU until he had the chance to show he belonged in the professional ranks.
But once he got there, he didn’t have to wait long for the next big opportunity.
Despite being a rookie, Deion emerged as the Falcons’ starting middle linebacker on their run to Super Bowl LI. He’s the chief communicator to the rest of the defense, a massive responsibility for a first-year player still adjusting to the NFL’s learning curve.
“He has come a long way. When he first got out there, it was kind of a big thing,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “Now he’s really good at it. He understands what he has to do, and he studies and gets with his coaches a lot. To be a rookie and be able to control the defense is amazing.”
Those study habits derive from another one of Cal’s lessons.
From the time he was 6 years old, Deion often reviewed Xs and Os with his father after finishing homework. Deion further developed his devotion to the mental side of the game at Jesuit High in New Orleans and then at LSU, even as he was buried on the depth chart for his first three years there.
That background has helped the rookie match wits with some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks — Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, to name a few — throughout the season.
Fittingly, that gauntlet will end against three-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots tonight at NRG Stadium in Houston. It’s a tall task and surreal experience for Deion, who grew up watching the 39-year-old Brady.
“When you’re playing outside as a kid, you’re like, ‘It’s the Super Bowl, and we’re going against Tom and the Patriots,’” he said. “It’s just a dream come true.”
Deion might as well have been speaking for many of his other defensive teammates.
He’s emblematic of the defense he commands, one that started four rookies and four second-round players against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game on Jan. 22. Atlanta coach Dan Quinn has frequently expressed confidence in his young but talented defense, and players have responded to that with week-to-week improvement.
“When we found out that he trusts us and believes that we can do our job, it was pretty easy having that support behind us,” Deion said. “They didn’t treat us like we were rookies when we came in.”
Deion, known by his teammates as “Debo” or just “Bo,” doesn’t dwell on the journey he has made from college backup to NFL starter in just two years. He said it’s merely the payoff for all his hard work and patience.
The linebacker may have gotten frustrated as a freshman, Cal said, but never considered transferring like many other players in his position have done.
Once again, Deion’s upbringing played a role.
“It comes down to family decisions. He made a choice to go to LSU, and that’s where he was going to stay,” Cal said.
“When things don’t go your way, you can’t just run.”
So Deion stayed in Baton Rouge, primarily playing special teams while flashing the speed that would later impress NFL scouts. When he finally got the starting nod as a senior, the New Orleans native made the most of it.
Deion piled up 100 tackles and 13« for a loss in 2015, outperforming Tigers junior position mate Kendell Beckwith, who entered the season rated by many as a better NFL prospect. His draft stock soared and climbed even higher when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at LSU’s Pro Day.
Yet for all his production, there was still one knock on Deion coming out of college.
At 6-foot-1 and a shade above 220 pounds, the speedy linebacker was slightly undersized for his position, even in the SEC. But Deion quickly dismissed those concerns this year, leading all NFL rookies with 108 regular-season tackles even while missing one game due to an ankle injury.
“This means something to him,” said cornerback Brian Poole, also in his first season. “He’s very passionate about the game, so he takes his game seriously, takes film seriously, takes practice seriously. When you do that, it’s really hard to be denied.”
Cal sums up his son’s success with two words — heart and will.
But intelligence might be Deion’s best trait. Allen said the linebacker, though strong at the point of contact, is often able to make up for the significant size disadvantage against offensive linemen because of how quickly he recognizes plays.
Deion manages all this while also keeping the rest of the defense in position, the result of a maturation process Falcons cornerback Jalen Collins has seen since the two were teammates at LSU.
“He’s really on his stuff. His communication has gone to another level,” said Collins, who entered the NFL one year before Deion. “He has gotten a lot more responsibilities once he started playing middle linebacker. If he’s not on point, then it’s hard for us to play well.”
One of the many highlights of Deion’s rookie season came in his hometown, when he intercepted Brees and raced 90 yards for a touchdown in a win against New Orleans in a Monday night game.
His whole family was in attendance, as they were at every Falcons home game this year. They’ll also be in Houston, where many of Deion’s extended family members reside.
“For the free time we do have, I’m probably for sure going to see my family,” he said. “But most of the time, I’m going to be locked in.”
He’ll need to be if Atlanta (13-5) wants to win its first Super Bowl in just its second try. Deion’s primary task is playing a mental game within the game against Brady, who helped New England (16-2) average 35 points per game in two playoff wins.
And the stage for the biggest challenge of Deion’s career is NRG Stadium, where he played his final college game in the Tigers’ Texas Bowl win.
Cal doesn’t find that weird or ironic. It’s “ordained,” he said.
Considering the patience Deion need before finally shining at LSU to punch his ticket to the NFL, his father might be onto something.
“A big thing we always talk about is being patient, waiting your turn and delayed gratification,” Cal said. “Look at where that’s gotten him now.”