- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
MONROE, La. -- Who is Laurence Jones? Most people know him as the top football recruit from Neville High School, ranked No. 23 in the ESPN 300 -- and No. 2 among safeties -- with scholarship offers from elite programs across the country. But those closest to him know him better as 'Hootie,' a nickname he received from his late grandmother when he was just months old.
“When I was younger and I was a baby, my eyes were so big like an owl, like a hoot owl, so they just started calling me 'Hootie,' ” Jones said.
The nickname stuck. His friends now call him that. His coaches call him that. Even his teachers refer to him at Hootie during school. When Neville head coach Mickey McCarty first met Jones as a 7th grader, he was introduced to him not as Laurence but as Hootie. McCarty didn’t ask questions. He just went with it. Eventually, he too heard the story.
“It just kind of stuck there,” McCarty said. “I think he’s embraced that and enjoyed it ever since.”
The story behind the nickname is about all the soft-spoken Jones is willing to give away when he talks to outsiders. He hardly ever takes phone calls from reporters, and when he does, he doesn’t have much to say. Because of that, there’s a certain curiosity that surrounds him.
His coach, who has helped deflect some of that attention, says Jones is just like any other high school football recruit.
“He’s going through the process,” McCarty said. “He’s certainly not a mysterious type kid. He’s just a laid-back, high-school-age young man that has a lot going for him, and it’s all right in front of him. He’s probably not fielded a bunch of phone calls or opened a lot of mail, probably just out of choice to keep him from getting too worn down.”
Jones did admit that Alabama and LSU are his top two schools right now, but unlike his friend and fellow northern Louisiana star Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe), he’s still open to other schools. He made trips to both TCU and USC last month.
“I’m trying to make the most visits so I can see which one feels like home,” he said.
Alabama might be beginning to feel like home, as Jones has made multiple trips to Tuscaloosa, most recently for the Crimson Tide’s four-day camp in June. He was also in attendance for A-Day, Alabama’s spring game.
However, he says he was hurt when his former recruiting coordinator, UA assistant coach Mike Groh, left for a job in the NFL.
“I started paying attention to Bama as a sophomore, when I first talked to Coach Groh,” Jones said. “I got real close to him, and he left and went to Chicago. I’m not saying that’s bad or anything. I’m happy for him, but I really don’t want to try to get close to nobody else.”
Billy Napier was hired in March to replace Groh. Soon after, he was given the task of mending the relationship with Jones. Napier is now the Tide’s recruiting coordinator for that area, an area loaded with talent in 2014.
The recent visits to UA are a good sign for Alabama and for Napier. Jones plans to make a return trip in November when the Tide plays host to LSU, his other top school.
As for LSU, he can’t leave the house without hearing about the in-state Tigers.
“The bellcow of our state is LSU when it comes to football,” McCarty said. “Any kid that has an opportunity to be offered by LSU certainly has to look at it. Is this an LSU town? I would say yes, in some respects. There are certainly a lot of fans here.
“These kids that are in state, much like any other state -- a kid in Alabama who is being recruited by Alabama and LSU -- are going to hear a lot about their in-state school. For him, it is LSU.”
Still, Jones admits that there are plenty of Alabama fans in his area, as well. He has people close to him pulling him in either direction.
“There’s a lot of pressure to go to LSU, but at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure to go to Alabama,” Jones said. “It’s like half and half up here. It’s making it kind of hard. I’ve got friends and family who want me to go to LSU, but at the same time, I got some more friends that I look up to who want me to go to Alabama. It’s making the decision even harder.”
When Jones was asked what the deciding factor would be, he couldn’t say. He honestly had no idea. Because he plans to graduate early and enroll at the school of his choice in January, he wants to make that decision during his senior season.
For now, he doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s not because he wants to keep people guessing. He wants just to be himself. He wants to be Hootie.
5dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough
5dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf