In Kansas City, the big stage is ready.
In Cambridge, Truman L. Jones ’22 is too.
As the National Football League (NFL) prepares to welcome 260 new rookies to the uppermost echelon of professional football between April 27 and 29, one of Harvard’s best draft prospects in years is chasing a dream achieved by precious few.
Only 15 men have ever stood in the position that the six-foot-four, 242-pound defensive end may soon find himself in. Despite Harvard’s storied football history — boasting one of the best-winning percentages in all of Division I since 2000, including only one losing season — Jones could become just the 16th Crimson player to hear his name called on draft night, and the first since center Cole Toner ’16 in 2016.
After producing one of the best defensive seasons by a Harvard player in recent memory, that possibility is closer than ever to becoming reality.
“It was something that I aspired to, but I didn’t realize how close it was until the season after the [Covid-19] pandemic,” said Jones of playing in the NFL. “After that, just seeing how I performed, I really wanted to give my all to the game and put everything I had into it and just try to pursue playing at the next level.”
His elite senior season marked a remarkable rise for a player whose Harvard career began with a position change.
After a standout career at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, in which he won a Division III-A state championship during his sophomore season, Jones entered veteran head coach Tim Murphy’s program as an outside linebacker. But after he saw action in just three of Harvard’s ten games during that 2018 season, Murphy and the rest of the Crimson’s staff decided to move him to defensive end.
“In that offseason, I probably, in three or four months, gained 20, 25 pounds,” Jones explained. “And then [I] was starting at defensive end that following year.”
That 2019 season proved to be the breakout that Jones needed to jumpstart his career. In his first start, a 36-14 win over San Diego, he made an instant impact, racking up 1.5 tackles for a loss, half a sack, and forcing a fumble. Throughout the year, he continued to wreak havoc on opposing players, racking up 23 tackles and finishing second in the Ivy League with 6.5 sacks despite missing the final three games of the season. His monster campaign earned him a Phil Steele All-Ivy Third Team nod.
When the Covid-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season, Jones decided to take the fall semester off in order to study for the Medical College Admission Test, which also allowed him to play in the 2022 season. The biomedical engineering concentrator ultimately plans to go to medical school after his playing career is over. But, in the meantime, football came calling.
“It was a decision that took a lot of convincing my parents to make,” said Jones of opting to go on leave. “But once they understood that I had thought about it and had a game plan, they let me move forward with it.”
2021 represented somewhat of a setback, as his statistics failed to live up to the lofty standards that his sophomore campaign had set. After being tabbed as a likely All-Ivy First Teamer prior to the season, he notched just 25 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and two sacks, settling for a Fourth Team appearance on Phil Steele’s annual honors. But Jones was undeterred.
“I honestly knew that I still had the ability to have stats like I had in 2019,” he said. “I just had to devote myself to the game and play like I was earning my role as a starter again. … It also helped, being done with my major, biomedical engineering, so taking a lighter course load, having more free time in the afternoons to watch film, led to more focus on football, which led to a better season.”
In a somewhat disappointing 2022 season for a Harvard squad that went just 6-4 — including 1-4 at home — Jones was a bright spot. Serving as the team captain throughout the fall, the senior paced the Crimson with 13 tackles for a loss — which also tied for first in the Ivy League — six sacks, six quarterback hurries, and three blocked kicks. Perhaps indicative of his uncommon athleticism, the latter figure was good enough for fourth in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
After the season, the awards rattled in.
All-Ivy First Team, unanimously. Academic All-Ivy. New England Football Journal First Team All-New England. FCS Associated Press Third-Team All-America. Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. New England Defensive Player of the Year.
NFL teams took notice, too.
“Truman improved dramatically from freshman to senior year but it wasn’t until about halfway through his senior year that he became dominant and NFL scouts started paying attention,” Murphy wrote in an email.
“Definitely this year,” said former linebacker Jordan Hill ’21, who served as captain during the 2021 season, about when he knew that Jones had a chance to play in the NFL. “There’s a lot of moments when you say, ‘Okay, this guy is an NFL-caliber player.’”
Harvard has been fairly successful in producing NFL talent over the past 10 years. Running back Kyle Juszczyk ’13 was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, and, four years later, became the highest-paid fullback in league history when he signed a four-year, $21-million contract with the San Francisco 49ers. Tight end Cameron Brate ’13 won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. One of Jones’ teammates, running back Aaron Shampklin ’21, recently signed a futures/reserve contract with the Indianapolis Colts. And Hill himself participated in training camp with the eventual NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 2022 season.
But none of these four players earned an honor that Jones did: he was the first Harvard player since NFL veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’04 to participate in the East-West Shrine Bowl, the nation’s premier collegiate football All-Star game, which invites some of the top seniors in the NCAA to compete in a week’s worth of practice and the game itself. From Jan. 27 to Feb. 7, Jones was in Las Vegas, training at the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice facility in front of NFL scouts alongside other potential pros.
“It didn’t really hit until being there, the caliber of players that I would see,” he said. “These are guys that I would watch on TV on Saturday, after our games had finished. So just seeing that they play what I thought was a higher level of football, but also meeting them in person, they’re normal guys that love the game and have a great appreciation for teamwork. I obviously learned a lot from them and their experiences and how they prepare and how they’re preparing to go to the next level, and I think it was a really great place for myself to prove that I can play with NFL-caliber players.”
Despite being the only Ivy League player at the showcase, Jones thrived in practice. A few weeks after the event, he was named to the All-West Practice Team. It also allowed him to gain exposure to a world in which football was the sole priority. In addition to the high-level talent, the teams were staffed with NFL coaches; the defensive coordinators for Jones’ West squad were a pair of New England Patriots assistants, cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino, and safeties coach Brian Belichick.
“They told us that this was kind of [our] audition for professional football, so, what will you do with all this free time, all the additional meeting time, all this additional coaching and resources that are available,” Jones said. “I really tried to take advantage of that and meet with coaches every day after practice, after film study, do extra work, watch film on my own, [and] get a good eight, nine hours of sleep.”
Jones’ hard work in practice paid off, as he got the opportunity to talk to, by his estimation, between 20 and 25 NFL franchises.
“Everybody needs a pass rusher and an outside linebacker,” said his agent, Joseph Linta of JL Sports Agency, which also represents Juszczyk, Brate, and Toner. “Everybody likes him, it’s just a matter of to what degree. Is someone going to like him enough to draft him? That remains to be seen.”
Despite his efforts, he still faces an uphill battle to hear his name called on draft night. Of the 319 players that the NFL invited to its annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 28 to March 6, only one Ivy League representative was among them — Princeton wideout Andrei Iosivas. Instead, Jones had to prove himself at Harvard’s Pro Day on Thursday.
Murphy, Hill, Linta, and Jones all cited the defensive end’s athleticism and explosiveness as one of his strongest assets. With more than 20 NFL teams in attendance, he demonstrated why on Thursday, recording a 37-inch vertical jump that would have tied for the fourth-highest among defensive ends at the Scouting Combine. His 10-foot, two-inch broad jump would have tied for the tenth-longest among all edge prospects, and his 4.39-second performance in the shuttle run would have ranked fifth.
After his performance, Eric Galko, the Shrine Bowl’s Director of Football Operations and Player Personnel, tweeted: “It’d be surprising to me if he slips out of the draft.”
“Thought everything went very well,” Jones wrote in a text message. “Felt very explosive and athletic so happy with my showing.”
As the draft process has ramped up following the conclusion of his senior season, Jones has received plenty of support. JL Sports played a critical role in helping him earn his Shrine Bowl opportunity, and Linta helped connect him with Athletic Evolution, a training center in Wilmington, Mass., where he has made significant strides.
Jones has also been able to lean on Hill, who now works as a scout for the Cleveland Browns.
“It comes naturally to want to reach back when you see that guys are trying to do things and take it further than I could,” Hill said. “Obviously, he’s in this position because he is an NFL-caliber player, so it’s not like I need to tell him how to run fast or anything, but mainly just being a resource, somebody that he can lean on if he has questions about the process.”
For now, the process entails working and waiting. The draft is approaching in seven weeks, and Jones plans to be at home in Atlanta with his family and close friends, watching it on TV and hoping to hear his phone ring with a call from an NFL general manager.
“It would just be incredible to be picked in the draft and to be signed to a team,” he said. “It’s a short list of guys that have done that, so being able to do that puts your name in the history books with some pretty nice company.”
It is far from a guarantee that Jones will be drafted. But what is guaranteed is that he will keep working to perfect his craft.
People who know Jones well, including Murphy and Hill, rave about his character. Perhaps the best example of his humility and work ethic was his reaction to his stellar senior season.
His 2022 campaign, which led to his meteoric rise as a prospect, blew almost every football analyst’s expectations out of the water. But not Jones’.
“I can honestly say that I have never surpassed my own expectations,” he said. “I still have a lot to develop if I want to be successful at the next level.”