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Donald Jones' rookie balancing act

He was an undrafted rookie out of Division 1-AA Youngstown State, and a junior college transfer at that. But the unheralded college career of Donald Jones did not have the Buffalo Bills personnel department fooled. They saw a multi-faceted talent that could potentially help a young and largely unproven receiving corps.

For Jones himself he was ready to take on anything and everything to make an NFL roster. And though a lot more than even he anticipated has been put on his plate in this his rookie season, Jones is not just handling all of it. He's succeeding.

The six-foot 214-pound receiver, who hailed from Plainfield, New Jersey, had major college offers coming out of Lackawanna CC in Pennsylvania, but slipped through the cracks when his commitment to Ole Miss was not honored by a new incoming coaching staff.

Jones subsequently chose Youngstown State because of their winning tradition at the FBS level. As productive as Jones was in his two seasons for the Penguins, including a senior season that saw him pull in 77 passes for 700 yards and six touchdowns in just 11 games, there was another area of his game Buffalo's talent evaluators appreciated just as much.

When it came to blocking at the receiver position Jones was among the elite in the 2010 draft pool as Buffalo saw it. The three best blocking receivers in the eyes of the Bills were Marcus Easley, Donald Jones and DeMaryius Thomas.

Making the Bills 53-man squad however, did not come without stress. When you're an undrafted rookie, you're automatically a bubble player. Add in the fact that Jones was expecting his first child late in camp and the stress was doubled.

"Those few weeks were crazy and I had to leave camp when he was born," said Jones of his now three-month old son. "Then I had to get back in for camp two days later, and my coaches were telling me how I had to get right back into it."

Jones' son Kiion, was named after his older brother who died in childbirth. The Bills receiver felt it was fitting since his son was born on the same day as the older brother he never met, Aug. 24th.

"I never had an older brother or a brother around my age that I wanted," said Jones, who has three younger siblings, ages four, seven and 11. "So that's why I chose to name my son after him."

Despite the added pressure of providing for a son, Jones had a solid preseason and his physical style of play helped earn him a roster spot as he landed a gunner job on Buffalo's punt coverage unit.

Nine weeks later, Jones' would be asked to do a whole lot more.

With Roscoe Parrish out for the season with a dislocated wrist that would require surgery, Jones was called upon to team with fellow undrafted rookie David Nelson to handle the slot role left vacant by Parrish. When presented with the game plan for Detroit in Week 10 Jones was surprised to see himself playing a large role.

"Naturally I was hoping for it," he said. "I really only thought that I would go in for the four wide sets,  but going into the Detroit game I saw I would be involved a lot."

Jones still played on special teams and largely handled the slot receiver role contributing a reception for 20 yards as well as some solid blocks on the edge to help spring Fred Jackson on what wound up being a 133-yard rushing day in Buffalo's first win of the season.

Buffalo's coaching staff knows that Jones isn't Roscoe Parrish, arguably one of the most elusive slot receivers in the game, but he is a solid blocker with good receiving ability and they've incorporated his strengths into their offense.

"He showed his toughness on special teams, which allows us to have an extra blocker in there even though we're in three wide personnel," said head coach Chan Gailey. "He's done a good job. You've got to give the guy credit. He studied when he wasn't playing. He studied. He knew what he was doing so when he got his opportunity he took advantage of it."

Jones credits Stevie Johnson in helping him to understand how to dissect opposing defenses in the film room and serving as a mentor of sorts.

"Stevie he's a like a big brother to me," said Jones. "He teaches me a lot on the field and off the field just in life. Of course I've been on special teams since the beginning of the season and that has come to me easier. Now I'm trying to learn more about the offense and he talks to me a lot and when we're watching film he's telling me things to look for. He teaches me a lot."

Jones says Johnson also talks to him a lot when they're on the field before, during and after games. That was the case this past week in Buffalo's dramatic comeback win over Cincinnati. A game in which Jones' most productive effort and first career touchdown was a bit overshadowed by a big second half by the Bills defense and Johnson's three-touchdown performance.

"I was telling him before the game that he has to step it up," said Johnson. "It was a situation that I was in. He had the screen play, he had the hole shot that Fitz put it in there. He's coming into his own. We've seen what David (Nelson) did earlier and now Donald, and I'm pretty sure everyone is watching him and seeing that he can ball too."

Jones was targeted five times in the Cincinnati game by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jones came through each time posting five receptions for 70 yards and a score. The rookie receiver knows making the most of your chances is the best way to give your quarterback faith that he can go to you.

"He's had trust in me since camp, but when he sees me making plays in the game that can't hurt," said Jones of Ryan Fitzpatrick. "When we watch film of the game he looks at me and smiles and shakes his head and nods to me. So he has a lot of trust in me."

Down 28-7 in the first half last Sunday, Fitzpatrick looked to Jones a lot on their two-minute drive near the end of the second quarter throwing to him three times in four plays, with the last going for 28 yards and a touchdown as Jones sprinted down the middle breaking an attempted tackle by Leon Hall to score.

Jones ran a respectable 4.49 40-time at the NFL combine in February, but looked a lot more explosive on his first career scoring play.

"Once you get on the field, everything changes, especially when you see the end zone," Jones said. "When I see the end zone I'm not going to let anybody tackle me. My 40-yard dash was 4.49, but my first 10 yards was very explosive at the combine. I guess that's what I used on the touchdown there."

"That's a testament to him, the way he's worked throughout the year, a testament to Chan and the coaches and taking advantage of some of the things he's good at," said Fitzpatrick. "As you saw on that wide receiver screen that he scored on he's a physical guy. A guy that we've used in the run game to block a little bit, but a guy when he catches the ball can break some tackles or run through them.

"He's going to continue to get better. We're going to continue to grow in terms of our chemistry. He's been focused the whole year."

Helping him with that focus is his son Kiion, who has Jones committed all the more to carving out an NFL career despite his unconventional path to becoming a professional.

"Everything that you really do is for your children and that's my focus," he said. "For me it's for my son to have a better life than I had. Everything I do is for him. He puts things into perspective. Everybody has those times when they say that football is hard, but I have to take care of him."

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