Jones trims down, claims RT spot

Standing 6-foot-8 and 355 pounds, Caleb Jones hasn’t lived in anonymity.

He was the mammoth lineman at little league games — the one skeptical parents pointed to and accused of being older than advertised. Caleb’s mom and dad had to bring his birth certificate along, ready to prove he was actually a year or two younger than the rest of the boys.

In high school, the oversized teen couldn’t walk down a grocery store aisle without awing a stranger. They would tell him he was going to be “famous” one day, that he was a “superstar.” Some asked for pictures. Even autographs. At times, it was more than a 15-year-old Caleb could deal with. He’d stay in the car while his father shopped.

Now that he’s the starting right tackle for Indiana, the giant of a man has piqued curiosities again. A reporter asked if he knew the name Trent Brown, an Oakland Raider with his exact dimensions. Has Caleb ever thought about his own enormous potential?

“My dad used to tell me all the time,” Caleb said, “potential is just another word for never done (squat).”

Caleb is used to people looking at him and getting ahead of themselves. But he knows it takes more than size to thrive in the Big Ten.

He arrived at IU overweight, not in good enough shape to be a starter. It took two years riding the Hoosier bench before he emerged this summer, ready to clear rushing lanes and swallow pass-rushers whole.

Caleb still has a lot to prove. But only to himself. His father, James, taught him to embrace the outsized expectations that come with his extraordinary frame.

“He’s always going to be 6-8, 6-9, whether he’s 20 years old, 25 year old or 40 years old,” James said. “People are going to ask you, ‘You must have played basketball,’ or ‘You must have played football.’ How do you want to answer that question? And how do you feel about the answer to that question?”

***

It may be hard to believe, but there was a moment in time when Caleb wasn’t huge.

He was born a run-of-the-mill, eight-pound baby. But Darice Maxie, his mother, knew what was coming.

Caleb’s father may be a 5-11 ex-basketball player, but Darice stands 6-1. Her father is 6-3. One brother is 6-5. Another is 6-6.

“We’re tall. It wasn’t a surprise that Caleb would be tall,” Darice said. “Until he passed my brother that was 6-6 in high school.”

Aside from the spurt that gave him the last couple of inches, it was a steady climb for Caleb, which allowed him to avoid most of the awkwardness of tall youths.

But not all of it.

Since the age of 10, Caleb worked the kitchen at his father’s restaurant, a soul food establishment called His Place Eatery. The corner where he chopped vegetables became cramped quickly. He was so tall, his head perched above a shelf with plates and to-go items, and Caleb would have to squat down to see what he was putting on a plate.

James mercifully released his son from that commercial kitchen, allowing him to focus all his size and energy on sports. But he didn’t want his son trapped in another tight box: the expectations others would place on him. Father and son discussed that at length before Caleb’s junior season at Lawrence North.

“Regardless of whether he plays football or not, he’s still going to be the same size,” James said. “It’s up to him to decide what his story is going to be, if that story is going to have the type of ending he wants, based on what he does, based on the work he puts in.”

Did he just want to be big? If so, that would have been fine.

Or did he want to be big and a college football player?

Caleb had to start asking that question again when he first stepped on a scale in Bloomington. His goal was to start at IU as a 345-pounder. A couple of those numbers read on the scale, but not in proper order.

4-0-5.

“I can’t imagine they were happy,” Caleb said.

A recruit under the Kevin Wilson regime, the tongue-lashing may have been worse if that coaching staff was still around. But this was IU’s first year under Tom Allen. Caleb isn’t sure his new coaches were aware of the goal Wilson and former line assistant Greg Frey had set. The number was logged, and the moment passed.

Caleb never told his dad about the 405 debacle.

“You’re breaking the news to me right now,” James said.

Caleb had surprised himself, actually. As a junior, he tore ligaments in his ankle, and time spent in a boot corresponded with unwanted gains. But Caleb was able to work some of it off during his senior season, dominant as ever in the trenches. It was in the offseason when the gregarious “gentle giant” really let things slip.

He wanted to enjoy senior year. While grocery store selfies weren’t immediately in his comfort zone as a teen, Caleb became a social animal. He is an avid gamer, battling in rounds of Fortnite and Call of Duty with his friends. He loves to debate and trash-talk, once after he whooped his mom in a tennis match.

He’s also a lover of food, thanks to his father.

James knew better than to give Caleb all the chicken and waffles he craved. But Jordan’s Fish and Chicken was just around the corner from Lawrence North.

“They had a seven-wing special: seven chicken wings, fries, two pieces of bread, and a drink for eight bucks,” Caleb said. “All that food for $8? You can’t pass that up. Plus, it’s good on top of that? I was eating that at least there times a week. At least.”

A lineman wants to be stout. But not 405. That’s 405 pounds Caleb had to explode out of a stance with, or nimbly backpedal in pass protection with. That’s a lot of weight on anyone’s feet. Even Caleb’s size 18s.

Luckily for the Hoosiers, Caleb likes to play as much as he likes food. It just took some words of encouragement to get him into gear.

Tom Allen challenged him. Offensive line coach Darren Hiller pushed him. But the most poignant conversation may have been with senior center Hunter Littlejohn, who sat with Caleb and his roommate, offensive guard Harry Crider, at a Buffalo Wild Wings.

The message was simple. Harry, a junior, was set to replace Wes Martin at left guard. Caleb, a redshirt sophomore, was the top candidate to succeed Brandon Knight at right tackle. The senior linemen needed them to step up.

“Up until that point, we figured we’d step into those roles, but it was real at that point,” Harry said. “It was December or January, but we wanted to play that weekend.”

There was work to be done, though. Harry, like a lot of Caleb’s teammates, became a check on his eating habits. He vetoed orders for an extra-large pizza in favor of a medium. Harry controlled what food they bought at the grocery, cutting out snacks and fried foods. In a pinch, they substituted Wendy’s and McDonald’s with Noodles & Company and Chipotle.

Along with his diet, Caleb had to embrace the weight room, or “the suck,” as former teammate and now-grad assistant Danny Friend calls it.

“You have to realize that you are going to go out there and it’s probably not going to be fun, it’s probably going to suck, but you have to do it,” Caleb said. “And if you are going to do it, you might as well go 100 percent.”

Caleb remembered what his dad said: Potential is just a word used to describe someone that hasn’t done squat. He was ready to be more than a big body everyone pinned their oversized expectations on.

He was ready to step up, for himself and his team.

***

The last two years have been a long wait for Darice and James. When they scanned the field at IU games, looking for their son, his 6-8 frame was never hard to find.

He was just on the sideline.

“It went game-to-game. ‘Will you play this game?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Will you play this game?’ ‘We don’t know,’” Darice said. “It was emotionally tough on all of us, especially Caleb. He hadn’t sat since he was 6 or 7 years old.

“Caleb is the ‘I’m a starter’ guy. … He calls people out, he challenges his team to do better, because he’s that guy. When he couldn’t play, mentally, that was a challenge.”

But then the right tackle job came open, and everyone who knows Caleb figured he would step up. He’s never shied away from a challenge.

Caleb played little league football in Warren Township, which should have landed him at a football powerhouse, Warren Central. His sister, Brianna Jones, a 6-1 basketball player, went to Warren. If he wanted every advantage, he would have taken his football body and become another link in the Warrior dynasty.

But Caleb instead chose a high school that hadn’t won a game the previous year. At Lawrence North, he was putting his faith in a former Hoosier lineman, coach Patrick Mallory. As would be the case when Caleb chose a college, he decided he wanted to be a part of building a winner rather than inheriting one.

The Wildcats won just one game in Caleb’s first two years. By the time he was a senior, Lawrence North pulled out a 4-6 season, including a win over the eventual state champs, Carmel, and a three-point overtime loss to parochial power Cathedral in the postseason opener.

Through wins and losses, he played every down. Possibly through a concussion. Darice just remembers Caleb getting sick on a car ride home from one game, wondering how she was going to carry a 300-plus-pound boy to his bed.

Sitting has been a test. Sharpening the mental discipline to control his weight, that was another. When his opportunity to break into the IU front five arrived this past offseason, he just had to seize it.

“Next man up, it’s your turn,” James said. “It kind of clicked with him.”

So as they sat in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium last weekend, James and Darice had their eyes trained on No. 77 as he came out of the tunnel. The linemen were the last to take the field, introduced by strength coach Rick Danison, who cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed, “We have the meats, baby! I have some meat for yah!”

Caleb, standing farthest to his right, was by far the meatiest. He was reaching 7 feet into the air as he bounced off the turf, swinging his arms and slapping hands with his teammates.

On the field, he put all 355 pounds into action. He blasted a 290-pound freshman three yards backward, paving the way for Stevie Scott’s touchdown run to open the third quarter. He used his long arms to keep pass-rushers at bay, holding down the blindside for lefty quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

It was a welcome sight for Michael Sr., who found Caleb’s family after the game.

“Your guy needs to protect my son,” the QB’s dad said.

“Oh yeah, he’s good,” the tackle’s crew answered. “We’ll take care of him.”

The conversation was light postgame. There was just so much more to talk about with Caleb back in the lineup. But something did weigh on Caleb.

It was his 355 pounds bearing down on his right foot, which was wrapped in a white size-16 shoe. His red 18 burst in the first half.

Big people problems.

“Well, they’ve now had this experience. Now they’ll know to keep two pairs of shoes on deck whenever you play,” Darice said.

“I’m sure he was happy to get that shoe off.”

6 comments

  1. If he avoids serious injury and continues to work on his weight and conditioning, he has a great future ahead of him. And I dare say that his Dad keeps him focused by repeating that great quote when necessary. I want to see him dominate Big Ten defenders.

  2. I have been following Caleb’s story since he was a soph in HS. He has had a good upbringing and if he stays on track could be a special player. He impressed IU coaches with his feet early on needing to work on his conditioning to gain a starting job.

  3. My comment got posted before I finished.

    He can be a real bonus for IU with the size and talent he has. As a team you don’t get players his size or with his family support very often.

  4. If he avoids serious injuries, I expect we’ll see him playing in the NFL in a few years. You can’t coach size, and this young man’s character appears to be even bigger.

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