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'The Coalition': Eccentric Duke football defensive backs coach Derek Jones creates powerhouse

Michael Carter II and Dylan Singleton are this year's leaders of The Coalition.
Michael Carter II and Dylan Singleton are this year's leaders of The Coalition.

Ask anyone on Duke University's campus about "The Brotherhood” and they will probably direct you to the hallowed halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

If you keep walking down the street to the even older Wallace Wade Stadium though, there’s another brotherhood that’s making waves around the ACC.

Since his arrival to Durham in January of 2008—the same time as well-respected head coach David Cutcliffe—Derek Jones, the Blue Devils' defensive backs and associate head coach, has been building his own brand to help set in motion the revival of the Duke football program. He calls it Cheetah U.

As the program has risen from a 1-11 season in the year prior to Jones' arrival to an ACC championship berth and now six bowl appearances in seven years, one of the most consistent and dominant units has been the secondary. Each defensive back is a cheetah, and collectively the unit is The Coalition—the same name for a group of cheetahs.

“When we first got here back in 2008, we hadn’t had a lot of success,” Jones said. “As I did my research, there were not any guys who had played defensive back here in the NFL. We hadn’t had a lot of all-conference, All-American type of accolades in recent memory for young guys to identify with. I wanted to start some type of brand, something attractive that recruits would be attracted to.”

Founding the cheetah

The origin of the brand has its roots long before Jones ever stepped foot on Duke’s campus or even before his time playing cornerback at Mississippi. As a kid, Jones loved getting up every Saturday morning to watch National Geographic, specifically intrigued by big cats like lions and cheetahs. The latter stood out over the course of his life because if its likeness to how a defensive back plays.

“We're not the biggest guys, so we're not going to be lions. We're not the strongest guys, so we're not going to be tigers," Jones said. "When you think of a cheetah, you think of speed, you think of elusiveness, you think of great change of direction skills, you think of superior vision, and you think of being able to stop and start on a dime. Those are all things that you have to do to be a good defensive back.”

These skills led Jones to a successful playing career, where he turned in two all-SEC seasons and went on to play in the Canadian Football League. He would return to Mississippi to get his coaching start with Cutcliffe, who was then head coach for the Rebels.

Jones likens his defense’s man coverage to how cheetahs tend to hunt alone. Even his pinned tweet on his Twitter account references his cheetah-like mindset.

‘Lifeblood of recruiting’

Building a brand at a school that lacked success for over a decade is hard enough, let alone having to overcome a “basketball school” label at every turn. Jones and co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri—who joined the Blue Devil staff in 2012—made it an emphasis to repeat their same ideas and push them out in any way possible.

Known for being a larger-than-life character, Jones has attracted more than 50,000 followers on Twitter. He wakes up every morning and sends out a few tweets with words of wisdom or cheetah philosophy to reach his players, fans and especially potential recruits.

“It’s a way of communication that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago that’s around in recruiting now,” Jones emphasized of social media. “What I’ve been able to do is just be able to reach guys that I wouldn’t normally be able to talk to using Twitter.”

Jones also includes “#Ap2w”, an acronym for “always play to win”, and "#CheetahU", emphasizing the Blue Devils' success in the secondary, on many of his tweets. He sees it as just another way to spread his message, as any football enthusiast can click on the hashtag to see what The Coalition is all about. He will even still write letters to high school coaches and teachers to bring light to the movement and use word of mouth so high school recruits think of Duke as a premier destination.

“They are going to go ahead and convince a lot of these kids that these are the people and this is the program that you want to be involved with,” Jones explained.

Jones’ spread of the Cheetah U is something that he calls “the lifeblood of recruiting” and other position groups have taken notice. The defensive line have taken on the title of “RushMen,” the running backs can be found under “#TheStable,” and almost every coach is an active user of social media.

“They are both outstanding individual recruiters, but they have marketed this thing,” Cutcliffe said. “People want to be a part of the Cheetah, the Coalition. I’m still trying to earn my Coalition t-shirt.”

Another aspect that Jones has emphasized is having younger players and recruits look up to and emulate the talented defensive backs ahead of them. Once he landed his first great cornerback recruit in Ross Cockrell—who would go on to be an All-ACC selection and NFL fourth-round pick—Jones was able to market him to fellow North Carolina natives Breon Borders and Bryon Fields Jr., who would then mentor guys like All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert, who can now become a role model to someone like Tony Davis, a four-star freshman. 

“Guys identify with guys that they want to be like," Jones said. "I can remember Breon and Bryon coming to games and they would sit there with their cameras on their phones and video Ross working out. As the progression went on, Ross was able to get drafted and Breon and Bryon became really good players for us.”

More than football

With the growth of the cheetah brand, Blue Devil defensive backs have started to reel in the accolades and NFL jobs that were absent when Jones first got to Duke.

Former and current members of The Coalition such as Cockrell, Matt Daniels, Jeremy Cash, Borders, Gilbert, Leon Wright all went on to all-ACC seasons under Jones, with many more also getting a stab at the NFL. For the coach going into his twelfth year at Duke, however, it’s more about the role he plays as a mentor.

“I think a lot of those guys would have been good players regardless of where they had gone because they were blessed with athletic ability,” Jones reflects. “But, when you look at all the things that we’ve tried to instill here at Duke University with character, with perseverance, with being who you are. We’re trying to teach them the importance of being husbands and fathers, as opposed to just football players and NFL players and I think we’ve been able to accomplish that.”

Jones shows the most pride in being able to stay in the lives of his former players, whether it’s wedding invitations or requests for letters of recommendation. The bond that all Duke defensive backs of the last decade is that they were coached by Jones, and therefore a part of Cheetah U.

“These guys are proud to be a part of that. I’ve got older guys that stay in contact with these guys all the time and they’re always reaching out to me because it’s a brotherhood,” Jones said.

Yes, he has expressed how cheetahs tend to hunt alone, but Jones will also be the first to tell you that when they do hunt in groups, the cats will only hunt with their brothers, and that’s what makes it The Coalition.

For more preseason coverage of the 2019 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions, and more.


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