Like all college football players, NC State redshirt junior safety Hakim Jones is quite a bit different than he was in high school. The 6-foot-2 defender has added weight to his impressive frame and now checks in around 205 pounds. In addition to enhanced strength and athleticism, he has also improved his knowledge of the game, work ethic and leadership abilities.
The changes began the first day he stepped on campus, when his eyes were opened by trying to hang with the likes of Earl Wolff, a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, and Brandan Bishop, who is currently with the Minnesota Vikings.
"I've got to admit that when I got here, I was very lazy," Jones explained. "Everything was basically handed to me in high school because I was always the best athlete on the field. When I came in here, Earl and those guys were a lot better than me. I felt like I was the least athletic and the weakest.
"My first individual session with those guys humbled me a lot."
Jones admits that the older guys on the team - Wolff and Bishop in particular as four-year starters - took him under their wings and taught him the work ethic necessary to be successful in college.
"They basically taught me to work hard," he said. "They always pushed me and got me better every day until I got to the point where I'm at now."
Although Jones is not as experienced as Wolff or Bishop were when he first arrived in Raleigh, he's assuming the role they served in when he was a youngster by leading the secondary and entire team.
"A lot of the young boys - [safeties] Shawn Boone and Dexter Wright - are learning pretty quick," he said. "It's surprising because usually when freshmen come in, they're really lost and nervous at first. We treat those guys like family and they do everything with us - eat with us, talk with us and play around with us.
"They're feeling comfortable, trying to do the same things we're doing and performing to the best of their ability."
Redshirt senior running back Tony Creecy told the media at ACC Kickoff that the Wolfpack was not a cohesive unit last year. There were guys that bought in to the new coaching staff and some that didn't, which resulted in on-field struggles - but that's not the case this year.
"We're basically feeling more like a team," Jones explained. "We're learning how to play with each other for the most part, but we feel a lot more comfortable and things are going a lot smoother than they were."
Another change from last year is the Pack's shift to a 4-2-5 base defense. Jones noted the biggest difference due to the alignment is that the secondary has to communicate better since there are more defensive backs out there. They also have to be familiar with each other's assignments and checks, and he's embracing his role as the quarterback of the defense.
"Everybody looks to me because I give the down and distance, the play calls and have to make all of the adjustments," he said. "I feel like everybody is counting on me since I start everything.
"I like a lot of pressure on my shoulders, and I'm good at handling the pressure."
He said taking on that vocal role as a first-time starter last year was challenging, but did not overwhelm him, thanks to the lessons Wolff and Bishop gave him before moving on to the league. However, he expects to be even better at it this year.
"They held me to a high standard because if one of them went down, I was both of their back-ups," he said of his redshirt freshman campaign. "I had to learn everything then, so it's basically the same thing.
"Even in high school, I had to make some of the same checks and in some situations, I had to play corner so I always had to talk to everybody. I don't talk much off the field, but when it comes to the field, I have to talk a whole lot just to get everybody lined up.
"I have to be a totally different guy."
The free safety has plenty of places to turn for advice - he is the younger brother of former NCSU linebacker Ernest Jones, while he can also lean on Wolff and Bishop - and he tries to put their lessons into action on and off the field.
Thanks to safeties coach and co-special teams coordinator Clayton White, Jones has another NFL mind he can pick - All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who was coached by White at Stanford and leads one of the NFL's biggest secondaries with the Seattle Seahawks. Their four starters average taller than 6-1 and 209 pounds, while the Pack's five who opened the spring game checked in at an average of more than 6-1 and 201 pounds.
"Coach White was actually showing us a video of [the Seahawks' secondary] talking about how they feed off each other and are so confident because they're bigger than everybody else," Jones said. "They're basically linebackers back there playing in the secondary. He compares us to them a lot and he'll call Richard Sherman sometimes to talk to us.
"His advice is just to stay humble and stay focused; never give up. He always competes - even if he gets beat on a play, he makes sure he never gets beat twice. He always comes back the next play even harder."
Mark it down as just another lesson taken to heart in Jones' ongoing gridiron education.