UNIVERSITY PARK — Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and DaQuan Jones share side-by-side stalls in the Penn State locker room. They also share the team lead with one sack apiece one game into the season.
On Tuesday, Obeng-Agyapong — a safety-turned-linebacker — took a few minutes before practice to rib his larger teammate, Jones — the team’s standout defensive tackle.
“I told him, ‘Watch me have more sacks than you this year,’” Obeng-Agyapong said. “But I was joking around with him. He’s a dominant force. I expect him to do work this year.”
As it turns out, Obeng-Agyapong isn’t Jones’ only competition. So far this season, the senior from Johnson City, N.Y. has had to field questions about the standout defensive tackles who have come before him, notably Jared Odrick, Devon Still and Jordan Hill — all of whom have been drafted by NFL teams.
And while Jones’ name has come up on NFL Draft lists already — former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL Draft guru Gil Brandt has Jones rated as the top defensive tackle prospect — the towering senior is tuning all of it out. He’s focused on stuffing Eastern Michigan’s offense when the Eagles meet the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium at noon on Saturday.
“I just want to go out there and play my game and be known for who I am,” Jones said. “I didn’t come here to live in anyone’s shadows. I respect (Odrick, Still and Hill) but at the same time, I have a game I can bring to the table and that’s what I want to be known for.”
Jones made his presence known last week in the Meadowlands. He led the team with nine tackles — three for losses — and turned in a demonstrative sack in the fourth quarter. Like the trio of talented tackles before him — Jones had to battle his way through double teams for much of the afternoon.
When he sacked Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen for a loss of nine yards, Jones split Rimington Trophy candidate Macky MacPherson and right guard Rob Trudo, who couldn’t hold the 6-foot-3, 318-pound Jones off with their combined efforts.
“We use the phrase ‘Next level’ when we talk about football, and there is a prime example of a guy that did it,” coach Bill O’Brien said of Jones. “He played very physically in the game and made a lot of really key stops for us. ... He’s going to be tough to handle this year, because he’s powerful, he’s strong, he’s smart, and he’s worked extremely hard to get to this point.”
In the winter months, Jones made a commitment to losing weight. His playing weight hovered at around 327 pounds toward the end of last season and ballooned to nearly 335 pounds in December. The added bulk made playing extended snaps nearly impossible. Jones wasn’t as quick as he wanted to be and his final stat line for the season — 22 tackles, two for losses and just half a sack — showed that.
By comparison, Still, Hill and Odrick finished their junior seasons with 39, 59 and 41 tackles, respectively. They added 10, eight and 9 1/2 tackles for loss, respectively, and combined for 12 sacks as juniors.
“I think he understands that this is the year he needs to go out there and ball out every single game no matter who we’re playing or anything like that,” offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said.
So Jones met with team nutritionist Dr. Kristine Clark, who recommended Jones eat more fish and eliminate sweets. He also stayed away from heavy orders from Wings Over Happy Valley.
By February, along with defensive tackle Austin Johnson, who also made a commitment to lose weight, Jones was starting to see his weight go down. By spring ball he was down to about 310 pounds. Now he checks in at a comfortable 315 pounds.
“It was tough,” Jones said. “The winter and during the spring, you really have to maintain that. You have to keep believing that it’s going to work. Over time I started losing weight and when you see results you want to keep doing it.”
Jones said he could only play about 30 snaps per game last season. Now he feels like he can handle double the workload. He has a chance to improve his final numbers more than the three talented tackles who came before him. Statistically, Still improved the most from his junior season to his final campaign, adding 16 more tackles and seven more tackles for losses than he did the year prior.
A lot of that had to do with Hill occupying defenders next to him.
Jones said he knows it’s not a one-man show and dared teams to double team him this season. That’ll only free up his teammates, he said.
“Honestly, it’s going to be a group effort,” Jones said. “I’m going to go out there and step up my game as hard as I can but at the same time, you can’t just focus on me. You have to worry about Deion (Barnes) and C.J. (Olaniyan) and Austin Johnson and Kyle Baublitz. ... I feel like if they do that it will leave those guys with one-on-ones. More power to them. I hope they do it.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.