The man who ran the defense and special teams at Morgan State University in the late 1990s was Dexter Davis, a former NFL defensive back who declared for the 1991 draft before finishing his degree at Clemson. A back injury and head-related trauma cut Davis' career short in 1997, and when he began coaching, he took undergraduate classes alongside his players.
Morgan State had once been a Black college football power, producing 34 draft picks (including Hall of Famers Willie Lanier, Rosey Brown and Leroy Kelly) from 1951-82. But the east Baltimore school slipped in stature as drugs tore through its surrounding neighborhoods and the city's violent crime rates climbed.
The practice field back then, Davis said, was "a little bit of grass, a little bit of dirt, a little bit of rocks, glass, broken syringes" that had to be cleaned each day. When his class schedule meant he'd arrive late, there was no assistant to handle the first part of practice for him.
On those days, Davis left things to Daronte Jones, the safety who'd been raised by his mother and grandmother in Prince George's County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. Jones had such a thorough command of the scheme, such deep respect from his teammates, he could run practice himself.
"He'd say, 'Hey, Coach, I got it,' " Davis recalled. "He'd run the first three or four periods for you before you arrived."
The assured, assiduous educator who arrived in Minnesota to coach the Vikings' defensive backs this year was formed in tough places, on practice fields lined with the detritus of a crime-ridden city and small-school locker room floors that provided a place to sleep after late-night film study sessions. They are the places from which a path to the NFL can seem inaccessible without a supreme level of focus and commitment, but Jones had the reserves for the road.
He coached seven seasons at FCS or Division II colleges and two at Louisiana high schools before landing his first job at an FBS program with UCLA in 2010. He went from Los Angeles to Montreal to Hawaii to Madison in the next five seasons, dutifully navigating an assistant coach's nomadic existence with an ability to pack light and years' worth of advice from mentors to focus on the current job, not the next one.
Then, after three years with Dolphins and Bengals teams that ran similar schemes to the Vikings' defense, he came to Minnesota this offseason for a job interview with Mike Zimmer, who made Jones the point person for a secondary that was about to go through a major overhaul.
Twelve games into Jones' first season with the Vikings, the defensive backs coach has soldiered through a truncated offseason and a 1-5 start marred by injuries and cornerback inexperience and moved the group toward something approaching reliability. The Vikings are 6-6, heading into a game against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers that's saturated with playoff stakes in part because the young corners have shown signs of progress.
The Vikings allowed nine pass plays of 20 yards or more in narrow victories over the Panthers and Jaguars the past two weeks, but gave up only nine in the preceding four-game stretch. Rookie Cameron Dantzler last week recorded the first interception by a Vikings cornerback all season and recovered the fumble he forced in an overtime win over the Jaguars.
According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, the Vikings' pass defense is the ninth-best in the league.
"He's been earning his money this year," safety Harrison Smith said of Jones. "He does a really good job of communicating exactly what we need to get done and things that we can expect while also not overloading the group with things that can bog you down. There can be a balance there based on just experience levels. He's been doing a great job of starting at the fundamentals and expanding from there and giving us enough information to grow without handicapping us."
As COVID-19 wiped out the NFL's offseason programs and led to a shortened training camp with no preseason, it effectively put the same challenge in front of pro coaches that college and high school coaches face every year: teaching young players a scheme virtually from scratch with precious little on-field time before games that count.
In that moment, the approach Jones honed on a circuitous path to the NFL made him the right man for the job.
"Most players are different in some way, but at the end of the day, they're all the same in terms of, they want to get better," he said. "That's one thing you can lose sight of when you get to the professional level; you're like, 'They're already there — what can I bring to them?' But if they feel like you can give them some tools to help them, help the longevity of their career at this level, or at college, help them get to this level, or in high school, help them get a scholarship, they're going to listen."
'Be where your feet are'
Those at Morgan State knew Jones as "Crow," the nickname he acquired after transferring from Temple. While playing safety during 7-on-7 drills, Jones would make bird call sounds so loudly, they'd be audible on the practice film. "Somebody out the blue called him a crow, and it just stuck and he ran with it," former teammate Melvin Coleman recalled to Davis.
After neck injuries ended Jones' playing days at the beginning of his junior year, his voice became a Morgan State fixture for other reasons. Davis asked him to help coach the defensive backs, opening a door into coaching.
Jones took a job after college as a graduate assistant at Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina, then shifted to Louisiana for three jobs over the next three years (one as a safeties coach at Nicholls State, two as defensive coordinators at Franklin and Jeanerette high schools).
His time in Louisiana introduced him to a network of African-American mentors: Lionel Vital, now the Cowboys' college scouting director; Vance Joseph, the Cardinals' defensive coordinator; and his brother Mickey Joseph, who has coached receivers (including Justin Jefferson) the past four years at LSU.
Their advice could be summed up in a consistent phrase: Be where your feet are.
"Just try to be the best at where you are, and everything else will take its course, if that's what God has for you," Jones said. "Whether it be the high school level, the Division II level or even in the CFL, it doesn't really matter. ... If opportunities present themselves, then they present themselves."
The opportunities kept coming, and the moves kept getting longer. When Jones was coaching cornerbacks at UCLA, the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League called Davis with an offer to coach their defensive backs. He'd gone into ministry in Atlanta with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes by that point, and his wife, Lashea, had just had their fourth child. Instead of taking the job, Davis recommended Jones.
He took the job and left the continental U.S. for four years. He went from the Alouettes to an assistant head coach/secondary coach job at Hawaii, before arriving at Wisconsin in 2015 in what turned out to be his final stop before the NFL came calling.
"The easiest thing for me is, it's just me; I don't have a family, I don't have a wife and kids," Jones said. "Now, it's tough, because you're moving a lot, but in this profession, that's just part of it. You know you're going to be moving a lot, so you have to be flexible. Pack light, and you move light."
Taking young DBs back to school
As the Vikings searched for a new defensive backs coach to replace Jerry Gray, Jones arrived for an interview with Zimmer with a strong recommendation from Zimmer's former boss Marvin Lewis and a belief his own love of detail and process would mesh well with the head coach.
Still, Jones knew Zimmer, who had started his NFL career working with Deion Sanders and Darren Woodson, wouldn't be easily impressed.
"You have to go in understanding there's nothing I'm going to say that he probably hasn't heard or done before," Jones said. "We started talking some concepts, how to play different things and I found myself saying, 'There's so much knowledge here that I would be fortunate to get the opportunity to learn from him."
What's Zimmer like in a job interview?
"Like ice," Jones said with a laugh. "You can't read him."
The call with a job offer came a couple days later.
"I've been very, very impressed with him," Zimmer said. "You're right, that is a tough job — coaching DBs for me. But he's very smart, he's very articulate, he's not afraid to throw in his ideas.
"He's tough on the players. He's hard on them. He grinds them and grinds them, which I appreciate. I think he's done a terrific job with these young kids. And, really, they are young, young."
No rookie corners have played more in Minnesota for Zimmer than Dantzler and Jeff Gladney, and the Vikings haven't given a snap this season to a corner with more than three years in the NFL. The pandemic sent coaches back into their hard drives and memory banks for practice plans they'd used at lower levels, searching for ways to educate young players quickly.
Jones had just the thing: a one-page guide he used to give freshman defensive backs in college, with a list of the questions they need to answer as they watch film.
"It may be, who are the top receivers? What type of receivers are they — are they possession receivers, are they speed receivers?" Jones said. "How do they catch the ball, their alignment in their stance? What are the top formations that you see? What are the top tendencies that you're getting out of those formations? So if they have something in front of them to help guide them as they watch film, then they're not just watching as a fan or to watch plays, but they're watching with some intent, and understanding there's a purpose to it."
Gladney credited Jones' game planning for the unit's growth.
"I account some of the growth definitely to him definitely speeding the process up, helping with my technique, keeping my eyes right, and just really putting everything into boxes and letting us know what's coming," he said.
Davis, now the chaplain for the Falcons, visited with Jones before Atlanta's game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 18. Watching him on the field that day, Davis said, "There was a tear in the corner of my eye.
"I remember talking to him many nights, he's sleeping on the floor [after long hours of work], paying that price. We all see where he is now, but Daronte has paid the price to be where he is. Nobody gave him anything. He has earned it wherever he has been, and I think that's what makes him so qualified, and such a great story."