No. 11 Mallard Creek's elite receiver Ryan Jones is growing into an elite leader

No. 11 Mallard Creek's elite receiver Ryan Jones is growing into an elite leader

Super 25

No. 11 Mallard Creek's elite receiver Ryan Jones is growing into an elite leader

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Ryan Jones is transforming into an able leader for No. 11 Mallard Creek. (Photo: 247 Sports)

Ryan Jones is transforming into an able leader for No. 11 Mallard Creek. (Photo: 247 Sports)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On a bright Tuesday afternoon under the glorious North Carolina sun just off to the side of  Johnston Oehler Road, North Carolina’s top high school football team, the Mallard Creek Mavericks, grind through drills and run plays in 91-degree heat.

Toward the end of practice, the infamous N.C. humidity is beginning to claim its fair share of victims but head coach Mike Palmieri and his staff are having no parts of the lollygagging.

“What in the world are you doing!” one coach barks.

“Why would you throw to him? You’re not thinking! Run the play again!” another yells.

Palmieri and his staff don’t ask perfection, they demand it; only right for a team vying for its fourth-consecutive 4AA state title.

Two plays later, Ryan Jones lines up in the slot and, when the ball is hiked, he steps back, catches a screen pass then guns it up the field with Usain Bolt-like speed.

Fifteen yards later, well after the defense has conceded the impending touchdown, Jones is still running; now seemingly even harder and faster than when he started.

The whistle blows, signaling the end of the play, but Jones keeps on running, much to the delight of the coaches.

“Atta-boy, Ryan!” one assistant says. “Way to play at game speed!”

Showing off? Nah. Coach’s pet? Hardly.

Ask Jones what drives his need for speed at a time when most players coast and he’ll simply tell you, “Growth.”

“To be honest, I wouldn’t have sprinted that hard in that same situation last year,” said Jones, a senior wide receiver. “But I’m not the player I was last year. I can’t be. I have to be more. I have to be a leader out here and that’s the only thing I’m focused on.”

On Friday, Jones and the Mavericks, who are ranked No. 11 in the USA Today Super 25, will direct their focus to perennial national power Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.).

“They’re always a great team so it will be a great test for us,” Jones said of Byrnes. “I feel like it’ll be a good test for me as a leader too.”

Last season, as one of a handful of offensive weapons for the Mavericks, Jones reeled in 23 passes for 679 yards and seven touchdowns.

“I know that I have to do more this year,” said Jones, a North Carolina commit. “I’m not the guy who talks a lot and gets in my teammates’ faces. I like to lead by example. I feel like that’s the best way to motivate people.”

Jones’ teammates were plenty motivated in last week’s 35-20 win over Butler (Matthews, N.C.), the three-time N.C. 4AA state champs. The 6-foot-4 receiver caught eight passes for 97 yards and scored a touchdown to help the Mavericks improve to 2-0 after knocking off South Carolina 2A state champion Dillon (Dillon, S.C.) in week one.

“Football-wise he’s fine,” Palmieri said. “He’s one of the guys that does a good job of leading by example, and I told him he needs to develop more of a sense of urgency in being more of a vocal leader. He’s embracing that.”

Last season, Mallard Creek became just the fifth team in N.C. history to win three-consecutive 4AA championships. State title hardware this season would make them just the second team in N.C. history to win four-straight.

“We’ve got guys here that have been a part of all three state titles and the coaches, obviously, have too,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter to me that I’ve only been here for one so far; I’m gonna go as hard as possible to get this fourth one.”

Jones knew formulating a strong chemistry with new quarterback Chauncey Caldwell would be paramount in that regard. Caldwell, a North Carolina Central commit, transferred to Mallard Creek from Hillside (Durham, N.C.) in March.

“From the beginning we just clicked,” Caldwell said. “So it was perfect because we needed to be friends, but we ended up being like the best of friends naturally. We talk all the time, hang all the time and, no matter what we’re talking about, it almost always comes back to football. We’re always thinking the game through and how we can do things better. I already know where he likes the ball and what he’s gonna do in a lot of different situations.”

Jones will admit this much, initially, when he learned that he’d be going from being a viable option offensively to the go-to guy he “slept on” the difficulty of producing as the defense’s focal point.

“I was just excited at first because, as a competitor, it’s fun to know you’re gonna have an even bigger role,” Jones said. “But it’s tough at the same time because they try and focus on just you. Now I learned to use that to motivate my teammates. I just tell them that’s disrespectful to them because they’re great receivers and it’s a chance for them to make the defense pay. I didn’t even think about things like this last year. I’m learning different ways to lead.”

Growth.

Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY

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