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Strength coach Darrion Jones supports Seminoles 'from highest of highs to lowest of lows'

On3 imageby:Ira Schoffel07/09/24


Editor’s Note: With preseason practice approaching later this month, Warchant is profiling all five members of Florida State football’s strength and conditioning staff individually and then examining the impact of the entire group as a whole.


Darrion Jones’ playing days ended the way they do for most college football players. Even ones who started for multiple years on the FBS level, like Jones did on defense for the Washington Huskies.

There was a brief NFL tryout. There was the harsh reality of needing to find a job and to pay bills while figuring out his next step. And then there was the harsher reality of coming to grips with the end of his football career.

For several months, the former defensive end and linebacker wasn’t exactly sure what to do with his life and how to use his bachelor’s degree in political science. The only thing he knew for sure was that he absolutely did not want to do what he had been doing since graduation.

“I was driving trucks for FedEx and trying to figure out the next phase in life, now that football’s done,” Jones said. “And I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do.'”

No offense to delivery drivers, of course.

It’s just that Jones had allowed himself to be sidetracked from his real professional goal during his five years at Washington, and it always gnawed at him.

Having grown up the son of a professional athlete — Darrion’s father, Danny, starred in basketball and track at Boise State and spent some time with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks — he had been around strength training and player development his entire life.

Mentored and motivated by a father and older brother who excelled in sports and loved working out, Darrion remembers his dad getting him a membership to 24-hour Fitness when he was just 13 years old.

“I loved lifting weights and training and just being strong,” Jones said.

And he loved seeing what that lifestyle did for other athletes. So when the California native signed with Washington out of high school, the plan was to major in kinesiology and one day work in that field.

“I wanted to cultivate athletes into being better versions of themselves,” Jones said.

The problem, he was told by an academic adviser, was it would be practically impossible to handle such a rigorous academic major at Washington while also playing football. After considering other options, Jones made the switch to political science because he had an interest in politics and world affairs.

He just didn’t have enough of an interest to really pursue it as a career.

It wasn’t until the mother of his girlfriend at the time took a job at Northern Arizona University — and mentioned that the Flagstaff, Ariz., school was recognized for having very good programs for fitness and wellness, as well as exercise science — that Jones realized he might be able to pursue his true passion after all.

So at the age of 27, Jones went back to college.

He enrolled at Northern Arizona as a post-baccalaureate student pursuing a degree in exercise science. And for the first time since he could remember, he was no longer a student-athlete. He was just a student.

“It was night and day from the first time I was in school,” Jones said with a laugh. “First time, I was on scholarship, life was great. Going back to school, I had to pay for classes, I had to take out student loans, I had to get a job, I had to figure out housing … everything.

“When you’re a normal student, I think you always wonder what it’s like being a student-athlete. And a lot of student-athletes wonder what it would be like to be a regular student. I got to live both sides of that, so I’m eternally grateful for those lessons. Because I know how hard it is now.”

If there is a theme to Darrion Jones’ life and career, it is exactly that.

As challenging as it was to go back to school in his late-20s to pursue the degree he always wanted, his journey to becoming a Florida State assistant strength and conditioning coach also started from humble beginnings.

After earning his second bachelor’s degree in Fitness Wellness and interning with the strength staff at Northern Arizona, Jones took another internship back in California at EXOS, where he got to work with a variety of professional athletes in football and other sports. Then he got his first full-time college job at Incarnate Word, an FCS program in San Antonio.

Though he was thrilled to finally land a position in the field, it was far from the glamour of big-time college football — the kind he had experienced in the Pac-12 as a player.

At Incarnate Word, Jones didn’t have the luxury of focusing on one sport. Along with football, he also worked with the men’s and women’s golfers and the synchronized swimmers. And because the support staff was so small — the Cardinals didn’t have a nutrition staff — it was up to the strength coaches to shop for food for the athletes and make sure they had fuel for their workouts.

While Jones doesn’t necessarily miss those days of making dozens of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at a time, he absolutely cherishes that time of his life and how it helped prepare him for his career.

“You have to be thankful for those experiences,” he said.

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Florida State assistant strength and conditioning coach Darrion Jones encourages players during pregame warmups. (Mike Erdelyi/FSU Athletics Public Relations)
Florida State assistant strength and conditioning coach Darrion Jones encourages players during pregame warmups. (Mike Erdelyi/FSU Athletics Public Relations)

With an eye on moving to a higher level, Jones applied for a position on Josh Storms’ strength and conditioning staff at Memphis late in the 2019 season, and he was elated to simply land an interview. Setting up an in-person meeting was difficult, however, because Memphis was preparing for its conference championship game.

And then on Dec. 8, 2019 — one day after the Tigers defeated Cincinnati to clinch a trip to the Cotton Bowl — Florida State announced it had hired Memphis head coach Mike Norvell to lead the Seminoles.

Jones wasn’t sure how that announcement would impact his job opportunity at Memphis, but he definitely didn’t expect what would happen next. On that following Tuesday, he received a call from Storms. The veteran strength coach explained that he would be joining Norvell at Florida State and would need to assemble a new staff in Tallahassee.

“I’m bringing you with me,” Storms told him.

It was a surreal turn of events. One day, Jones was on an FCS staff just hoping to land an interview with a Group of Five school. The next, he was heading to Florida State.

“It was a unique experience. And I’m grateful for it every day, obviously,” Jones said.

He also is grateful for his specific role on the Florida State staff.

While all of Storms’ strength coaches share some of the same responsibilities — leading workouts and providing instruction and motivation — Jones’ particular area of emphasis is helping injured Seminoles return to action.

That means working very closely with the athletic training staff to determine which exercises are safe and beneficial at different stages of the rehabilitation process. Constantly balancing the desire to be aggressive with getting guys back on the field, while also avoiding any setbacks.

During most practices, Jones spends his time working one-on-one with injured players in the corner of the practice fields, or inside the indoor facility.

“I don’t always get to watch practice, which I would like to see,” he says with a laugh. “I’m in the corner kind of peaking over. And everybody will be like, ‘Did you see that play?!’ And I’m like, ‘No, I did not.’ But it’s great. I think I get to build more one-on-one relationships, especially with those guys who have injuries that keep them out for a year or more.”

Jones sees his role as part-strength coach and part-counselor, depending on what each specific player needs at a given time.

Some need to be pushed and prodded. Others simply want someone to listen and offer support.

“I get to build this relationship and see this person go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” Jones explained. “So to help nurture them through that process: ‘Yes, this bad thing happened to you. But we can progress and get better. You can be better than before. But you have to believe it, and you have to live that every day. I’m not saying every day is going to be positive. You’re going to have ups, you’re going to have downs, you’re going to have peaks and valleys. But just give me what you’ve got every day. And I’m going to be with you every step of the way.'”

Developing those relationships is much easier today than it was three or four years ago.

Like each of the coaches on Storms’ strength and conditioning staff, Jones has had an inside view of the transformation of the Florida State program under Norvell.

He was here in early 2020 when the new regime first arrived. He remembers trying to get Florida State’s existing players to buy into the structure and demands of the new staff — their third coaching staff in just over three years. He recalls how those early days were made even more difficult when the entire roster was sent home for roughly three months in the spring and summer of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Their trust was very, very thin,” Jones explains.

But things began to change behind the scenes in 2021. The players’ work habits improved. There was less resistance and greater accountability. And the Seminoles saw tangible improvement on the field in 2022 and 2023.

That improvement culminated, of course, with Florida State winning 13 games last season and claiming the ACC Championship.

As much as anyone in the program, Jones understands the importance of paying dues. He did it as an athlete, then he did it as a non-traditional student at Northern Arizona. He remembers driving those FedEx trucks around Tacoma, Wash., and he often reflects on making those PB&J sandwiches at Incarnate Word.

Florida State hasn’t accomplished everything Norvell, Storms and company hope to achieve during their time in Tallahassee. But every once in a while, Jones said, they can take a moment to appreciate how far they have come.

“From the first day we walked in here, Jan. 2, 2020, to [winning the ACC], that was a roller-coaster. That was like a lifetime of experiences in that time,” Jones said. “But it’s been a beautiful sight to see. It’s been a great experience. Especially from when we first got here until now, it’s been amazing.”

Florida State assistant strength coach Darrion Jones enters the field with Placekicker Ryan Fitzgerald. (Mike Erdelyi/FSU Athletics Public Relations)
Florida State assistant strength coach Darrion Jones enters the field with Placekicker Ryan Fitzgerald. (Mike Erdelyi/FSU Athletics Public Relations)

Next in our series: Senior Associate Director of Football Strength & Conditioning Lanier Coleman

Previous Installments:

* ‘The weight room is my ministry’ … Nick Dowdy finds calling with FSU strength program

* From trenches to training, Tom Farniok helps FSU football strength staff stay on cutting edge


Talk about this story with other die-hard Florida State football fans on the Tribal Council.

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