REGINA – Kitwana Jones is in a fight for his professional football life. The veteran Saskatchewan Roughriders lineman has barely been mentioned when speculation turns to replacements for John Chick and Stevie Baggs. Chick and Baggs both signed with the NFL teams during the off-season, leaving huge holes at defensive end.
Jones said Tuesday that he has noticed most of the talk around defensive ends seems to focus on candidates such as Luc Mullinder, Joe Sykes, Brent Hawkins and Shomari Williams.
“That’s cool with me because I’ve been out here going on six years,’’ said the 28-year-old Jones, who has spent most of those six seasons with the Riders. “Nothing else changes. I can just go out here and do my job.’’
Jones was traded to the Edmonton Eskimos prior to training camp in 2009. He rejoined the Roughriders in September after being released by the Eskmos. Jones made an instant contribution to the Riders’ special teams while playing on the defensive line as a tackle and end. He returned this year well aware he was in a battle to earn a spot on the Riders.
“That’s the same year in and year out,’’ said Jones. “I’m always the undersized guy at my position. There are things that I have to do to remain a Roughrider but I know that I’m in a fight. Then again, I’m always fighting. This year it’s a little tougher because I’m getting up there in age. I’m about to be 29, which isn’t that old but considering the age of some of the guys but it’s old enough.’’
The Riders invited eight defensive linemen to rookie camp in an effort to fill the holes left by the departures of Chick and Baggs. There are still 12 defensive linemen listed on the roster. The large number of defensive linemen has made it challenging for Jones to get enough defensive repetitions to remind the coaches of what he can bring to the team.
“They are all getting their shots,’’ said Jones. “I just have to wait my turn because it’s the coach’s call. All I am is the player and whatever they ask me to do, I will do it.’’
Gary Etcheverry, the Riders defensive co-ordinator, said Jones is in a battle for his job just like every other player on the roster. Jones may not have to prove himself as much on the field because Etcheverry is already aware of what the veteran can contribute.
“He is very dynamic within what we do,’’ said Etcheverry. “He’s a great competitor and we know that he can things that very few other people can do. Still, it’s a fight. There are a bunch of battles going on for a bunch of spots.’’
Jones is 6-foot-0 and listed at 235 pounds but looks substantially thinner. One of the reason Jones was traded to the Eskimos was the Riders were concerned he was too light to play defensive end. Jones volunteered to beef up over the off-season but Etcheverry told him that wasn’t necessary.
“I wanted to gain about 20 to 25 pounds because I knew I would be playing on the interior line this year,’’ said Jones. “He told me not to gain any weight and stay fit. I came back in top shape and now I’m fighting for my job.’’
Jones isn’t limited to playing defensive line because he’s among the league’s best special-teams players. He dressed for 18 games in 2009 and recorded 10 special-teams tackles. His passion and enthusiasm should keep him on special teams but the Riders are also dealing with numbers. Rookies like linebacker Byron Bullock, Williams and veteran Barrin Simpson are also expected to contribute on special teams. Where Jones fits in remains to be seen.
“He will always have a chance to contribute on the kicking game if he’s given an opportunity because he’s fabulous,’’ said Etcheverry.
Jones stressed that he wants to remain a Roughrider.
“I’ve run through plenty of wedges and taken on the biggest guys,’’ said Jones. “Whatever they have asked me to do, I will do it for the good of the team. Still, I understand what is going on. I have to take it as an athlete and it’s something outside of my circle that I can’t control. If I can’t control it, what can I do?’’