Both on and off the field, Naquan Jones is as strong as they come.
The hulking defensive tackle out of Michigan State was a reliable force against the run in 2020, and having lost weight to increase his athletic ability, he looks to translate his success in college to the NFL level.
Draft Wire had the chance to speak exclusively with Jones about his pre-draft process, how he’s managed to shed weight this offseason, overcoming adversity and more.
JI: You’ve lost quite a bit of weight in this pre-draft process. Can you speak to where you’re at now, and how you’ve worked to get to that weight?
NJ: Yeah, so yesterday, I weighed in at 315 [pounds]. That was my deal; that was my goal weight. I wanted to be in a position where I could be the best me in regards to not only speed and quickness, but also power and explosion, being able to endure longer series and play longer drives. I wanted to be able to play and keep the same intensity from play one to play 10. The way I play, I like to pursue to the ball. I want to be able to run, ideally, sideline-to-sideline in case a play extends and being able to chase it down. I had some plays like that in college, and I want to continue to keep doing that. Big guys who can move very well, they get a lot of praise. I just want to make that easier for me; that’s why I’m dropping weight.
JI: In your training, has your weight loss been apparent to you in your first-step quickness and your ability to move?
NJ: Yeah, absolutely. I try to do a little bit of conditioning every day after my workouts, and it just feels so much easier. It feels better on my body, moving my legs. I had a meniscus scope during the season, and I don’t feel anything on my knee now. My body just feels a lot better, [health-wise]. It also just goes into building better habits; I’m not eating things I used to eat all the time and putting things in my body that I shouldn’t. It just became a good habit, and it’s practicing self discipline.
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JI: You had the chance to take part in the Hula Bowl this offseason, too. What was your favorite part in that experience?
NJ: It was just amazing being there. I sat outside one day and I was just looking out the balcony, and I just thought to myself, “Wow, this is incredible. I can’t believe [I’m here].” It’s such a surreal feeling because I never knew that football would take me to Hawaii. I didn’t plan on going to Hawaii in the first place until I was there because of football: the game that I love. It was an amazing experience. Obviously, for that week, it was a business trip, and it was a business trip mindset for me, but I still got to enjoy myself and just bask in the moment. I think I did a lot of that, and I’m usually so uptight about everything – especially with it being a game, so I treated it like a normal game week. I was super focused and locked in, especially because I had to meet with a bunch of NFL teams. In my down time, I actually got to relax and really just admire where I was, all the way across the country on an island. That was an amazing experience for that week I was there.
JI: I know you’re from Evanston, and I’m a Chicago-area guy, too. So, I can imagine going to Hawaii in January must’ve been amazing.
NJ: Yeah, it was incredible. Perfect weather, it was great every day.
JI: You wear a necklace with several family members on it, including your late mother. Can you speak a bit about your mom growing up, and how that loss has molded you as a person?
NJ: I do, and I wear it every day because I use it as motivation to me. One side is me, my grandmother, my two sisters and my niece, and we were at my mom’s grave site, actually. That’s a nice picture of all of us. On the other side is a picture of me reaching up to my mom when she was at my spring game; that was the last time she got to see me play. Those are two very significant pictures that obviously, I thought they were significant enough to put on a necklace to wear every day.
Growing up, my mom was a hard worker. She provided for us the best she could. She spent countless hours working, and she wasn’t always available to come to my sporting events. That’s why growing up, I lived and spent most of my time with my grandmother. She was a hard-working woman, too. That was more her interest: she’s bigger into sports. My mom was huge on academics in the sense that it was easier just to relate a little bit more to my grandmother just because she valued sports more than my mother did. Me and my mom are very similar, especially with our humor and the way we act. Obviously, she was dealing with some things; that’s why I take mental health very seriously. You never know what people are going through. It was something that was depression and it was becoming an issue.
My sisters, when they got old enough to realize, they were seeing it, and it was something that I had to deal with growing up. It was tough in the sense that that’s my mom, and I always love her, and I miss here every day. Obviously, that was the toughest thing I had to deal with in my entire life. I’ve never experienced a pain like that, and some days, I still wake up and it doesn’t feel real, but at a point now, I had to accept it because it’s the reality of what it is. I try to just be as strong as I can for my sisters; they’re younger than I am, so it was a little tougher on them. I had to stay stronger for my grandmother; she’s gone through a lot of adversity, too. I lost my mom, but she also lost her daughter. It’s extremely tough, in a sense, so I just want to do everything that I can, and I use it more as motivation than anything. She’s not here anymore, but I know that she can still see me, and I know that she’s proud of everything I’ve accomplished, and I still have so much more – such a high ceiling – to get things done and set more goals that I can accomplish. I just use her as motivation every day.
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JI: Having your mom’s work ethic and your grandmother’s passion for sports, it sounds like your upbringing has molded you both on and off the field.
NJ: Absolutely. She held me accountable every step of the way, and I was never huge on academics – I had quite a bit of academic issues coming out of high school. One thing that I promised her before she passed was that I was going to get my degree from Michigan State. I was able to do that for her, and she wasn’t around for graduation to see me get my degree, but I know she saw it, and I know she was proud of me for that.
On the field, I just know that I have a lot of people watching me, so I have to perform. My grandmother’s probably my biggest critic, even more than any of my coaches. After each game, I know I’m going to hear something from her, good or bad. She tries to keep me very humble (laughs), so it’s always constructive criticism.
JI: In speaking with NFL teams, is there a consensus as to where they have you lining up most at the next level?
NJ: In college, I played a lot of 1- and 3-technique. We were in a four-down front, so we were able to play different shades and different techniques. I have had a lot of conversations with coaches, and I haven’t really heard anything about playing a set 0-technique. With me being able to play those two positions, that shows coaches my versatility. I think they like that just because they can move me around the d-line and not just keep me at one place, so that’s kind of what I’ve been hearing. Obviously, NFL teams run different systems that we’re not going to be used to in college, so at that point, it’s just you being comfortable adapting.
JI: Playing in the Big Ten, you’ve gone up against plenty of talented blockers. Who’s the toughest offensive lineman you’ve ever gone up against?
NJ: It’s kind of easy, actually: Quenton Nelson. He was a different type of guy (laughs). [He’s] just someone that’s not necessarily stronger and more powerful, but his IQ is very high. He’s just a really good football player. I was a redshirt freshman at the time, and he was already projected to go first round. I never really pay attention to the hype or anything like that going against an opponent, but I actually saw, “Okay, this is what a first-rounder looks like. This guy is talented; he’s very good.” He’s probably the best blocker I’ve ever gone against.
JI: I remember people saying he was a future Hall of Famer before he even got drafted. That’s how good he was.
NJ: Yeah, he checks all the boxes. He’s physical, he’s big, he’s a smart player, nasty on the o-line. He just checks all the boxes.
JI: How do you like to spend your free time outside of football?
NJ: I like to play a lot of basketball. I thought, when I grew up, I was going to be playing basketball, not football. That’s just a passion I have; I can spend hours on the court just shooting around. I just got a few books that I started reading, and I’m reading one right now. Obviously with COVID, you can’t really go out and do much. That really forced me to sit down and become a homebody. I don’t really do too much outside of playing my Xbox or reading now. I’ll read a couple books.
JI: What kind of books are you into?
NJ: The book I’m reading now is called, “Think and Grow Rich.” It’s a financial book. [I read] different books to build my mindset and educate me on things I’m not too familiar with, especially with, potentially, my life is going to change. [I read] just stuff to educate me with different things coming at me financially. You’re going to need to play against the best guys in the world, so you know you’re going to have to build your mindset, confidence, different things like that. [I read] just books that educate me on things I wasn’t too familiar with.
JI: That first NFL paycheck is a lot of money, and some guys don’t know what to do with it, so it’s great that you’re reading up on financials.
NJ: Absolutely. I just met with a financial advisor yesterday. I’ve got plans, and I’ve got things that I want to put into motion to just have different sources of income. It’s good to already be a little educated on that when we have financial conversations.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
NJ: You’ll be getting a hard worker. You’ll be getting a guy that’s passionate and a guy that cares about football, that loves football. I play with a lot of emotion, and I think that’s because I love the game so much. I hate to lose. You’re going to get a guy that’s a good teammate, that’s not a problem in the locker room. You’re going to get a guy that’s willing to learn. I take a lot of notes, and I really have become, over the last few years at Michigan State, a student of the game. You’re going to get a guy that’s going to ask questions and wants to see the guys around him get better. Obviously, I know it’s different now in college because this is a profession, but at the end of the day, I’m a selfless guy. I’d rather see my team winning than just personal success, and I’ve always been that way. You’re going to get a guy that’s just a caring guy, a good guy at heart, a guy that you could bring around your family.