COLUMBIA — When Andrew Jones steps onto the Missouri football team's practice field, there’s something missing.
It’s not his strength or his ball handling skills. It’s the pain that seared through his shoulder on nearly every play during the 2009 season.
For more on the Missouri tight ends go to the Missourian's Tiger sports blog.
Jones, who tore his labrum in the final preseason scrimmage of 2009, played through the season with the injury. He had his shoulder surgically repaired in January and returns to preseason camp this year facing the challenge of getting back into shape and making a difference on the team.
Jones, who is known to both his coaches and teammates as a consistent player with exceptional strength and ball-handling abilities, is a crucial member of the Tigers' offense. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and receivers coach Andy Hill say they expect that his offseason surgery should correct for the lack of impact Jones had in 2009, so expectations are high.
“He had a tough year last year,” Pinkel said. “His first year, he really had an exceptional year for a young player, and now he’s battling through it.”
Even when injured, Jones still displayed an uncanny ability to catch the ball. Not just often, according to Pinkel, but always.
“I don’t know if he ever dropped the ball,” Pinkel said. “He’s a big guy, can get open space and catch the ball, and that really helps our offense.”
Both coaches noticed a difference in Jones’s play last season, and they could tell by his jerky motions and unwillingness to fully extend his arms while blocking that he was in a lot of pain.
“I’d be so sore, and my arm would be dead and I would feel like I had no strength,” Jones said.
That’s all changed in 2010.
“When you can get your hands out when you’re blocking and you’re not afraid to extend your shoulders, that makes a huge difference,” Hill said. “You can see he’s just completely more fluid, too.”
Getting to that point, however, has been an effort for Jones. After surgery, he went through rehab from January until June, when he was able to begin more normal conditioning and strength training. He also had to work to regain the 20 pounds that he lost in the winter and spring. However, the first truly difficult post-surgery challenge Jones faced was not physical, but mental. He had to deal with sitting out of spring practices.
“During the spring, it’s really important for improving and working on stuff with your team, and the whole time, I was trying to go through rehab and get my strength back,” Jones said.
Hill said that Jones did his best to remain upbeat in the spring, but that he could tell that sitting out was taking its toll on Jones.
“Anytime you’re a competitive guy like he is, you care so much about the team,” Hill said. “He’s one of the most enthusiastic players we have. He still did a nice job enthusiasm-wise, but when you want to compete and you want a job, it’s so tough to sit out.”
After counting down the days until he could begin training with his teammates again, Jones faced another unfamiliar challenge this summer. He simply did not feel strong. The 250-pound tight end had always been praised for his incredible strength, but he quickly realized that returning to top condition would not be easy.
“I was just trying to get back into football shape all summer,” Jones said. “I mean, I was really bad out of shape until the middle of the summer when I could start going fully 100 percent ... The first couple of days of practice here, I was thinking that oh man, it felt like I hadn’t played football in like three years.”
Now, as the team’s first game approaches, Jones is finally feeling like his old self. With every block and catch, the third-year player feels a pang of surprise. It's not that he can make the block or catch the ball, because he’s always known he could do that. He says he’s surprised because he had forgotten how easy and painless it can be.
“I just feel like I have a whole new shoulder now,” Jones says. “Everything in there has been fixed.”