- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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Paul Mainieri was sitting in his office on Tuesday, staring at LSU's 2009 NCAA baseball championship trophy.
"I'm not sure if I'd be looking at it if it weren't for Chad Jones' contributions," the LSU baseball coach said of his former outfielder/pitcher.
Mainieri wonders how good his team would be right now if Jones had stayed in school and decided to stick with baseball. Instead, the multi-talented Jones, who played safety on LSU's football team, entered the NFL draft and is now with the New York Giants. Selected in the third round, the dual-sport star is now fully committed to football with the Giants. After participating in rookie mini camp, Jones believes he can become an elite safety in the NFL.
"I'm definitely going to get better, focusing on football all the time, all year-round, putting all the time in meetings and weight room," Jones said. "The sky is the limit. This is the first time in my life. I have been doing two sports all year-round. It is going to be a big turning point in my life."
It didn't take the 6-2 Jones long to learn that he'll have to shape up. Head coach Tom Coughlin made it clear he was not thrilled with Jones' weight. He let him know he has to slim down from the 225 pounds he weighed at during minicamp to 218.
Jones, who Mainieri described as someone who can lose focus off the field, believes going through an entire offseason program in one sport will allow him to get into shape easily. Mainieri hopes so because he believes discipline is all that is keeping Jones from becoming a star. He said there is no questioning his ability on the field, but the baseball coach said some academic issues limited his outfielder/pitcher to just five baseball games during his freshman year.
"I just hope he will push himself to greatness and not just count on these great gifts that he has been given," Mainieri said. "Sometimes he coasted toward exceeding."
Jones was the best on the field -- baseball or football -- in high school. In football, while playing at Southern University Laboratory High School in Baton Rouge (La.), he was only one of four defensive backs in the country named Parade All-American. He was listed as the top safety and even the top athlete recruit in the country by two websites.
On the diamond, Jones might have been even better. An exceptional outfielder, the southpaw batted over .500 and was clocked with a 91 mph fastball. The Astros drafted him in the 13th round. Mainieri says Jones would have been "legitimately a third-round choice" had teams thought he was focused on baseball. Jones said he preferred baseball in high school and seriously considered signing with the Astros. He couldn't come to contract terms and turned down a $745,000 signing bonus.
Jones went on to help the Tigers win a national championship in football as a freshman in 2007. In the spring of his sophomore year in 2009, he became only one of two players in NCAA history to win a BCS football championship and a College World Series title, joining teammate Jared Mitchell, who also was on both national championship teams with him at LSU.
Because Jones had to miss a portion of the 2009 season to participate in spring football practice to learn a new scheme under a new defensive coordinator, Jones lost his outfield starting spot and was converted to a reliever. He delivered his signature baseball moment in the deciding Game 3 of the College World Series against Texas. Up 9-4 in the bottom of the sixth with one out, Mainieri sent Jones in to face Texas' hot three and four hitters. Jones struck both of them out. He stayed in and mowed down Texas' hitters in the seventh inning as well, pitching 1-2/3 scoreless innings while allowing no hits and no walks in LSU's 11-4 victory.
Mainieri, who also coached two-sport star Jeff Samardzija when he was at Notre Dame, believes Jones would be a first-round pick after this season if he kept playing baseball. Mitchell, his teammate, was a first-round selection by the White Sox. New York baseball fans won't want to hear this. Mainieri says Jones is the type of clutch reliever who can enter a pressure-packed situation and strike out the likes of "Chase Utley and Ryan Howard." And if he played outfield, Mainieri said Jones reminds him of Tampa's Carl Crawford.
"I'm not sure where he would have had a brighter future," said Mainieri, who has coached the likes of Phillies' closer Brad Lidge and former Mets reliever Aaron Heilman at Notre Dame. "He was a lefty with a 91 mile-per-hour faster with a wicked slider. Or he could have been an everyday player in the outfield. He can hit for power, run, throw and play defense. The more he would have played, the better he would have gotten."
Jones feels the same way about football. He said he got hooked on football after feeling the electricity of playing in front of 93,000-plus fans at Tiger Stadium. The Giants were sold when they saw Jones' athleticism. They had his ball skills rated higher than USC safety Taylor Mays, who was drafted by the 49ers in the second round.
"He may have some of the best pure hands in the draft out of any position," said Marc Ross, Giants director of college scouting. "You can really see his baseball skills like hand-eye coordination catching the football. He can really catch it."
The Giants spent a third-round pick on Jones even though they needed a middle linebacker. Some in the organization wanted to take Nebraska's Phillip Dillard at that point. The Giants ended up getting Dillard in the next round after securing perhaps their safety of the future and a potential impact returner on special teams.
"I had a pretty good go with baseball and I finally gave that up to play football and I am happy with the decision I made," the confident Jones said. "I believe I'm an elite safety just like other players in the NFL. I see myself as an elite player."
Mainieri doesn't doubt that if Jones puts in the time and effort.
"If he would be dedicated and really push himself and build his body up and do the extra work, I think you are talking about a guy who can do some phenomenal things," Mainieri said. "I do know athletes and he is a really great athlete."
Looking at the national championship trophy in his office, Mainieri then wondered what could have been had Jones decided differently.
"I would have liked to have seen him play for us this spring," he said with a laugh.
Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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