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Alabama’s Jones shows skills, toughness

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 25, 2011

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When the NFL Scouting Combine began, it wasn’t a secret that Alabama receiver Julio Jones was a top-tier talent. As a junior last fall, he had 78 receptions for more than 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns.

Jones, who started every one of the 40 games he played for the Crimson Tide, measured 6 feet 3 inches, and is a physical specimen similar to Lions star Calvin Johnson.

But then the combine began and Jones impressed teams further. He ran a blazing 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash — faster than expected — and his 38-inch vertical leap, position-best 11-foot-3-inch broad jump, and 6.66-second clocking in the three-cone drill all spoke to his explosiveness. It wasn’t those raw numbers, however, that were most impressive. It was finding out he posted those numbers with a hairline fracture in his right foot. The injury required the insertion of a pin in the bone.

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said the network’s draft experts believe Georgia’s A.J. Green is the top receiver this year, but noted that Jones bolstered his stock with his March performance at the combine.

“Where Julio helped himself is going to the combine and running that fast and jumping that high on a bad wheel,’’ said Gruden, the former Raiders and Buccaneers coach. “Julio Jones, from a natural receiving standpoint, might not have as pure of hands as A.J. Green, but he is good enough to be a force in pro football with that size, speed, and catching radius.’’

The performance bolstered Jones’s reputation as a tough player at a position increasingly known for diva-mentality performers.

“I like to play the game with a passion,’’ Jones said. “[Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis, I like the way he plays. [Steelers receiver] Hines Ward as well. I like the way he blocks and is committed on every play.

“I have a defensive mentality. I’m not scared to hit. I’m a physical guy. I look for that. I like to hit defensive guys because they’re not used to getting hit. They’re used to hitting offensive players and getting them out of their comfort zone. So when I hit them, I try to get them out of their comfort zone.’’

That defensive mentality is a hallmark of Ward, who broke Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers’s jaw on a block in 2008. Ward has a reputation as a dirty player for crack-back blocks when defenders aren’t looking.

Jones believes being a standout blocker is simply part of being an unselfish teammate. He mentioned his Alabama teammates were his “brothers’’ and he wanted to lay it all on the line for them during games.

Just as he’s unselfish on the field, Jones — whose biggest negatives in scouting reports were an occasional tendency to drop easy balls and have concentration lapses — wasn’t able to say he’s the best receiver in the draft.

Jones and Green, who made things difficult for Southeastern Conference defensive backs for the last few falls, trained together in Arizona.

“I’m a great blocker. I’m a physical receiver. A lot of guys are finesse-type guys,’’ said Jones. “You really can’t compare their game to mine because they’re different. I can’t say I’m better than A.J. and I can’t say he’s better than me. We work together. He’s a great guy.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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