DECATUR — When Jordan Hopman was hired at LSA in February, he had to fight against distance.
He was hired from Peotone High School, where he was the team's defensive coordinator, and moved to Decatur on June 3. He made the two-hour trip to Decatur to run practices every three weeks from February to June. It's been a balancing act of setting up offseason workouts, while getting to know his players from both LSA and Mount Pulaski — the two schools co-op for football.
For a while, it was a one-man band, and Hopman coached every position on the field for his roughly 25-man roster. He's gotten to know his players, supporting them at summer baseball games and basketball workouts. Building a connection was key. After all, he knows how close former coach Craig Bundy was with the players.
Things, Hopman said, have gone well on that front. But there's also the case of senior wing back Jalen Jones. Hopman estimates that he and Jones have said "about 10 words" to one another since Hopman arrived. The lack of conversation isn't because of any angst or animosity, it's just that Jones doesn't say much.
“I show it on the field," Jones said.
As a junior last season he scored eight touchdowns on offense, had a fumble return for a score and was named to the Herald & Review All-Macon County Second Team. Hopman has gotten used to a lack of verbal conversations with Jones.
"I’ve coached so many kids from so many backgrounds," Hopman said. "I’ve had kids who talk a mile a minute and kids like Jalen. He’s a phenomenal talent, especially at a 1A school. You don’t see kids like that at the 1A level a whole lot."
To close a practice on Tuesday, Jones burst through a hole on the left side of the line. There were no defenders, but that wasn't the point. Hopman didn't have to work with Jones and was able to focus on the offensive line. A few plays earlier, Jones broke out on a route and caught a pass.
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But as versatile as he is as both a pass catcher and runner, the best part of his game may be defense. In fact, Hopman thinks defensive back is Jones' best position. Teammate Isaac Fouse says that Jones is the best defensive back he's seen.
“He’s a tremendous athlete," Hopman said. "I really feel that if he so chooses that he could definitely play in the secondary somewhere on Saturdays. I don’t know where he might go, but I think there are a lot of schools missing out if they don’t come talk to him."
Jones' football pedigree goes back to days playing in Mueller Park with his older family members when they would go visit their grandmother's house. Since then, he's turned into an athlete for the Lions with speed and quickness.
He's also a mentor for younger players on the team, in the same way that Grant Karsten and Mike Fiala were for him. On the field, he'll be used in a variety of ways and is welcome to the idea.
“It don’t matter to me," Jones said. "I just like running the ball and getting touchdowns."
Though he's a man of few words, Jones isn't afraid to step into the light as someone the Lions can lean on. Though Jones is quiet, he also has a weapon at his disposal that commands the respect of the rest of the team — the look.
“He keeps so much to himself, but one of the things that I love about Jalen is how he commands respect through the way he is," Hopman said. "People know they can joke with Jalen, but they also know by a single look, and Jalen has given plenty of those, that, ‘All right, this has got to change.’"