Mike Kirschner, then the football coach at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, was teaching a weightlifting class on a winter day in 2017 when an Iowa assistant dropped by.
Making a stop on a recruiting trip, he had come to ask Kirschner for intel on the Giants’ players.
It wasn’t long before their conversation shifted to a 6-foot-8 sophomore who was seated at a triceps extension machine and looked like a prototypical offensive tackle.
But Kirschner explained that Dawand Jones, the mammoth-sized teenager already tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds, was pursuing another sport and had not played football the previous fall.
“I said he’s concentrated on basketball,” Kirschner recalled, “and he walks over to him and says, ‘Son, get your head out of your butt and realize where your money is going to be made.’ That was all he said to him.”
Whether due to the impromptu pep talk or other reasons, Jones found his way to the football field as a junior a few months later.
From blocking shots to blocking for C.J. Stroud at Ohio State
Taking advantage of his size, Jones would develop into a three-star prospect, opening his path to Columbus.
Now a third-year sophomore at Ohio State, Jones is the Buckeyes’ starting right tackle, clearing holes for running backs and protecting quarterback C.J. Stroud, the budding Heisman Trophy candidate.
But there is reason Jones has at times needed nudging toward football. The pull of basketball is strong.
“Being the Hoosier state, that’s kind of what comes first,” he said, “basketball more so than football.”
A basketball was at his fingertips early. As a toddler, Jones slept with a miniature basketball. A couple of years later, he begged his mom every day to take him to a nearby city park to hoist shots. Once he started reading, he poured over library books about Michael Jordan.
“The love of basketball has always been there,” said his mother, Deanna Jones, “and it comes natural to him.”
By the time he reached high school, Jones was devoted to the sport, playing on AAU teams and receiving offers from mid-major schools. He was an Indiana All-Star as a senior.
Though heavier than most budding college basketball players, he remained surprisingly mobile.
Don Carlisle remembers watching Jones at one of the first open gyms he held after being hired as Ben Davis’ basketball coach in 2018.
Jones grabbed a rebound on the defensive end of the floor, dribbled the length of court and flushed a one-handed dunk.
Ohio State offensive line: 'That's absolutely a possibility.' Dawand Jones might cause OSU offensive line shuffle
It was unforgettable. Such a move would hardly be attempted in an organized game, but it gave him a glimpse of Jones’ athleticism.
“I was like, man, a kid that size is able to move like that?” Carlisle said.
For as much time as Jones had focused on basketball, it also helped him with football, fostering the speed and agility needed to block defensive linemen.
“The idea of moving your feet and, and having to guard people 1-on-1,” Kirschner said, “I think was immensely helpful at his early age because he was so big, so early.”
Dawand Jones kept growing and growing and growing
It was as if he were on a never-ending growth spurt throughout childhood. By the time he was in middle school, he had sprouted to 6 feet tall. Every year, his shoe size changed.
“Sometimes when they get that big that fast, the coordination just doesn't keep up and they lose interest,” Kirschner added, “but because he was playing basketball at such an early age, I think it was a direct carryover to how well his feet moved when he got to football.”
Jones waited until about midway through his junior season at Ben Davis before first starting at right tackle.
Boys basketball regional final highlights: Ben Davis 53, New Palestine 47
Corey Elliot, Special for IndyStar
Sitting out his sophomore season and having played only on the school’s freshman team, it took him a few games to acclimate to the varsity level and pick up some of the finer points of his position.
But his size was always imposing. In a game against Carmel that fall, he flattened a defensive lineman while blocking for a running back. As they continued down the field, a safety was in range to make a potential tackle. Yet rather than attempt to shed a block by Jones, he avoided him altogether.
“On film, you watch the safety go the other direction,” Kirschner said. “He doesn’t even go to the ball.”
Though his physical traits stood out, Jones received limited recruiting attention as a junior. Schools knew about his basketball ambitions and held off on extending offers, “treading lightly,” said Jason Simmons, who succeeded Kirschner in 2018.
Boys basketball regional highlights: Ben Davis 75, Lawrence Central 65
Yousef Abdeldaiem, Special for IndyStar
A connection with Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is formed
As Jones played well to start his senior season, Simmons made sure they knew about his strides and sought to assuage remaining concerns about the lineman’s passion for football.
He told them that Jones had suffered a wrist fracture during Ben Davis’ third game and never missed a practice or game as a result. Doctors put a cast on his left wrist, and that was enough.
“That told me he was serious about football,” Simmons said.
By late October, Mississippi State became the first Power Five conference school to offer him a scholarship.
Not long after, Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson called Simmons to inquire about the massive prospect. As the Buckeyes considered an offer, it helped that Wilson had known Simmons for more than two decades.
When Wilson was offensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio) in the late 1990s, Simmons was a defensive lineman for the RedHawks.
The interest from Ohio State and other historic football powers such as Michigan and Penn State felt surreal to Jones, who had once expected it to come from basketball blue-bloods.
“I imagined seeing myself at Rupp Arena,” he said, “not the Big House or Ohio Stadium.”
In his early seasons with the Buckeyes, he still seemed attached to the idea. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa wasn’t convinced that Jones was fully focused on football until the spring of this year.
“That was the issue,” Studrawa said, “getting him to buy in that you’re not a basketball player anymore, you’re a football player. Your mentality has to change. What you do has to change. It took some time because he loved basketball so much.”
The Buckeyes were ultimately confident enough in Jones’ dedication to reconfigure their starting offensive line in preseason training camp to open up a spot for the 6-8, 360-pound lineman at right tackle.
The move has paid off as he has been a critical piece for the nation’s highest-scoring offense.
Looking beyond basketball, Jones has developed a practical approach to football.
He sees the sport as a potentially lucrative career path and talks about becoming a millionaire to support his mom. After she raised him in an apartment in Indianapolis, he wants to one day buy her a house. It's one of his biggest goals.
“I can change my mom's life,” he said, “by me just changing the sport I like and just doing it and growing with it. Because I compete no matter what.”