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SPRING FOOTBALL: WATCH| Mount Zion, coach Kevin Jones hoping for a program defining season in 2016

Mount Zion football coach Kevin Jones says the talent level at the school is starting to look like what he envisioned three years ago. (PHOTO: Gabriel Stovall)

Mount Zion football coach Kevin Jones says the talent level at the school is starting to look like what he envisioned three years ago. (PHOTO: Gabriel Stovall)

See raw footage of Mount Zion’s first spring practice, and a brief word from Coach Kevin Jones on his outlook for his team:

By Gabriel Stovall

JONESBORO, Ga. — Kevin Jones was so amped for Monday’s start to Spring Football, the Mount Zion coach added an interesting adornment to his bedtime wardrobe Sunday night.

“I think I slept with my whistle around my neck last night,” Jones said. “I couldn’t even sleep, really, because I was just so excited about the helmets, the chin straps, the tackling, the blocking and the catching. Just football, man. I couldn’t wait.”

Though most schools in the four-county Southern Crescent area won’t commence their annual spring workouts until next week, a handful of Clayton County schools kicked things off this week, with Mount Zion being the first.

Three other Clayton County schools — Lovejoy (April 27), Jonesboro (April 28) and Riverdale (April 28) will also put on the pads this week for 10 days of pre-summer practice.

And although Jones doubles as Mount Zion’s headead baseball coach, the return to the gridiron is the thing that truly gets his blood pumping.

“Man, this is great,” he said of the opportunity to start things off earlier than normal. “I tell you, I just feel like I’m back home out here. I’m back in my natural environment.”

And it’s in that environment that Jones, now entering his third year at the helm of the Bulldogs’ football rebuilding project, feels like some of the old glory is starting to creep back into Mount Zion’s blood.

From 1997 through 2004, Mount Zion enjoyed its best stint of football, sporting seven winning seasons and five playoff berths, including the 1999 season when that Jackie Green-coached squad finished 14-1 with a 17-7 loss to Oconee County in the Class AAA championship game.

Since 2004, however, the school has had just two winning seasons — 2008 and 2009 while current Our Lady of Mercy and former Drew and Griffin coach Jarrett Laws was in charge. Mount Zion also went through four coaches during that time.

Despite back-to-back 2-8 campaigns in Jones’ first two years, however, major signs of progress have been made. For verification, Jones points to the fact that in six of the eight losses in 2015, his squad was either tied or ahead at halftime.

“The old dog in me thinks we should’ve won seven games last year,” Jones said. “Looking back, I really couldn’t understand why we weren’t winning those football games. But then my staff helped me to understand that it takes three years to get those kids comfortable with what you say and what you’re asking them to do. So I’m proud of where we are right now.”

Further proof of a Mount Zion football revival can be seen in the kind of attention some of Jones’ best players are getting right now.

There’s Tyree Leonard,  a 6-foot-3, 225 pound linebacker who’s been clocked at 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Leonard’s got offers from Georgia Southern and Central Florida. Jones also mentioned Lenox Copeland and Roman Victor — guys who will play both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs in 2016, and who are also getting Division I attention.

Copeland, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound speedster has been offered by Navy, Georgia Southern, Marshall, Charlotte and Presbyterian, while Victor’s overtures have come from Air Force, Georgia Southern, Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee state.

“The seeds have grown,” Jones said.

And then there’s rising junior quarterback and defensive back Demaje’ Carter, the team’s 2015 offensive MVP. Jones said he’s already getting attention from the likes of Louisville, NC State and Maryland.

“They’re all over him,” he said. “We’re expecting big things out of Demaje’”

Jones said the recruiting attention is just the latest sign of the upward trajectory of Mount Zion football.

“This kind of attention is so good for Mount Zion as a program,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had this coming this way, but it’s good for the team. It’s good for the kids. It shows that we’re talented, but we’re battle tested, and it’s a testimony to all of the hard work they’ve been doing in the classroom and the work they’ve done on the field. I couldn’t be more proud of where we are.”

Mount Zion will conclude its spring session with it’s annual Spring Game on Friday May 6.