The menu at James Jones’ restaurant “His Place Eatery” in Indianapolis is filled with Southern favorites: fried chicken, smokehouse grilled cheese, peach cobbler chicken & waffles and candied yams. It’s the type of greasy meal that, as James’ son and IU football offensive lineman Caleb puts it, is “good food, just not great for you.”
And Jones’ favorite on the menu?
“I absolutely love ribs and my dad has a great dry rub,” he said with a smile Friday afternoon.
This sentiment was confirmed by Indiana head coach Tom Allen, who ate at the restaurant when recruiting Jones out of high school.
“The food,” Allen said, “is amazing.”
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This, however, came with a cost. For a majority of his playing career at Indiana, Jones has had difficulty keeping his weight at a manageable figure. Last season, he checked in at a massive 6-foot-8 and almost 400 pounds.
But over the past few months, Caleb has focused on his diet and conditioning. He hasn’t eaten at his father’s restaurant in a while. As he enters his senior season, he’s down to 350 pounds, a weight that he hasn’t played at since he was in high school.
“He looks like a completely different person,” Allen said.
Ever since he arrived at IU in 2017, there have been various conversations between Jones and the coaching staff about his weight. Coming out of Lawrence North High School, Jones was already listed at 370 pounds. The staff decided to redshirt him in his first year.
Despite the weight concerns, Jones quickly made an impact for Indiana. He played 11 games at tackle in 2018. A year later, he started all of Indiana’s 13 games and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention. But even then, his lack of mobility and quickness was sometimes evident. A diet would be put into place, but he had trouble sticking to it.
At the end of his sophomore year, IU offensive line coach Darren Hiller said Jones was “trending in the right way,” in regards to the type of shape he was in. But then the pandemic hit. Much of Jones’ structure was gone. The Big Ten season was canceled and reinstated in a matter of weeks. Jones also dealt with an ankle injury, and it was uncertain whether he’d even be ready for the opener.
Still, Jones played in five games, including four starts, and was a key part of Indiana’s offensive line. His weight, however, was still an issue.
“The whole COVID situation is tough for big guys,” Allen said. “It’s tough. There’s no doubt about it. He wasn’t able to play to the level I know he was capable of because of it.”
At the end of the season, Allen and IU Athletic Director of Performance Aaron Wellman sat down with Jones. They set a clear goal. They mapped out a plan that included a “very prescriptive diet,” where he’d also work with a nutritionist. Jones had a similar conversation with Hiller, who made it clear if he had professional aspirations, the next year would be crucial.
The message resonated during the offseason. Jones was able to be on campus and work extensively with Wellman, something he couldn’t do two summers ago because of COVID-19. According to Hiller, the fact that Jones was working with Wellman, a former NFL coach, was imperative to his continued progress, saying “a light bulb came on.”
Jones also stuck to his diet. He avoided eating at his father’s restaurant. He stayed away from the ribs.
“Making sure that I know what I have to do and what I can’t do and making those decisions on a day to day basis, which I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at now,” Jones said.
The result? Jones said he’s down to 350 pounds.
“I feel a lot faster when I move,” Jones said. “I feel like I have a lot more wind. I feel like I can go… nothing holding me back. It definitely feels very good.”
A concern for Indiana entering this season has been its offensive line. The Hoosiers were just 12th in rushing yards per game in the Big Ten last season, and are losing two starters on top of that, which makes Jones’ development all the more important. He’s also become a leader in the group.
But before he blocks any eager pass rushers this season, he’s had to avoid the ribs. According to Allen, that’s an impressive feat in and of itself.
“What an unbelievable challenge that is,” Allen said. “That is a temptation… He’s had to say no.”