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October 31, 2013

Hakim Jones playing his best as rivalry approaches

Redshirt sophomore safety Hakim Jones played only on special teams last year against North Carolina, but he is very familiar with the NC State-UNC rivalry.

The 6-foot-2, 202-pounder's older brother, Ernest, was a starting linebacker on the team that kicked off the Wolfpack's five-game winning streak in 2007 that ended last year. It's a contest that he has always dreamed of being able to play in and he can't wait for his chance to open the rivalry game as Pack's strong safety.

"It means a lot," he said. "I grew up watching this game since my brother played here and everything. I know it's going to be a big deal, a very big deal for the next 365 days.

"I'm really looking forward to it."

The younger Jones said his brother has always compared the NCSU-UNC rivalry to the opponent Southern Vance — the Alma mater of both — always circled on their calendar, Northern Vance. Hakim was quick to note that his school never lost to Northern when he was on the varsity squad.

"It's the biggest game of the season that everybody looks forward to and everybody always comes to play the game, no matter the record or anything," he explained. "It's a game that everybody plays their hearts out."

Jones is coming off of a pair of standout performances for the Pack and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable noted that the youngster has improved not only by the game, but also by the snap. He played in all 13 games last year, but logged just 57 plays on the defensive side of the ball, while he recorded 10 tackles with an interception.

He played 59 defensive snaps in just the season opener. Through seven starts, he has totaled 39 tackles with an interception and seven more pass breakups. He ranks fourth on the team in tackles and leads the team in pass breakups.

Although Jones notched just two stops and one pass breakup against Syracuse, he was named co-Defensive Player of the Week by the coaching staff for his performance, sharing the honor with true freshman cornerback Jack Tocho, who finished with two interceptions.

Against FSU, Jones earned the honor after he recorded six tackles and broke up five passes, including one that led to an interception by his new backline-mate, Dontae Johnson, who moved from cornerback after fifth-year senior Jarvis Byrd was lost for the season with a knee injury.

"I think Hakim has put together two good games," Huxtable noted. "If you watch the film, Hakim has become a lot more disciplined in his eye control and knowing where he's supposed to be. Now he is becoming more productive because he is more focused and disciplined with his eyes. He understands the intent of his keys and where he's supposed to be."

"I had to cover a whole lot that game, so it was a big confidence booster really," Jones admitted. "Now we've basically seen the best; any other speed is not going to match the speed of Florida State's receivers. We're going to be pretty much prepared for everything else."

The reshuffled secondary has had some success despite the loss of Byrd, and after just four interceptions in the first five games, they have equaled that total in the last two. Jones noted that while he had a good chemistry with Byrd on the backline — and the elder statesmen is still helping when he can, despite the injury — he and Johnson are especially close, which has helped ease the midseason change.

"Dontae and I are very close anyway," Jones said. "We go together everywhere and we do everything together, so playing together is the same thing. Byrd is always with us, too, so all three of us and [starting cornerback] Juston [Burris] are all tight; we're always together everywhere we go.

"[Byrd] talks to us a lot and he watches film with us still. He always knows what's going on even though he's not playing. He can make all of the checks right now, he can do everything like he's still playing and he helps us out as much as he can."

The entire secondary will be tasked this week with limiting UNC tight end Eric Ebron, who ranks second among all tight ends and 38th overall with an average of 85.6 receiving yards per game, but a lot of the responsibility may fall to Jones. The UNC junior has also not shied away from calling out NC State in the media and on twitter.

"You never know where Ebron is going to be, he'll line up to the field, he'll line up in the back and they'll even give him the ball," Jones noted. "He runs a lot of crossing routes and I do pretty well against crossing routes anyway, so I don't really [expect to] see too much out of him."

Jones noted that the biggest key to an NCSU victory on Saturday will be getting pressure on the quarterback and covering the receivers. He knows how the secondary plays will play a big role in the outcome, but he's excited for his chance to start a new streak against the Tar Heels and build on his stellar performances of the past two weeks.

Jones' emergence is something that safeties coach Clayton White — who is very familiar with the NC State-North Carolina rivalry after playing in it during his college days — has expected since taking the job.

"He's a very humble kid who takes coaching very well," he said. "I always told him, 'You're a sophomore, you have a chance to get your career set up here.'

"That was one of the first things I told him when I got here. I knew from that moment on, with the way he looked in my eyes, that he believed in himself, in the coaches and in NC State.

"He's kind of gotten things going and improving every week. He's got to keep it up. We've got five games to go, but he's playing his best football right now."

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