Inside Virginia Tech CBs Coach Derek Jones' Cheetah Mentality & Brand

Inside Virginia Tech CBs Coach Derek Jones' Cheetah Mentality & Brand
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas | @TimThomasTLP

TLP: Editor
Aug 14, 2022

Derek Jones has long been considered one of the most respected DB coaches east of the Mississippi from his highly successful tenure at Duke where many thought he could be the successor to David Cutcliffe. Jones is back on the East Coast after a couple years at Texas Tech as the Hokies' cornerbacks coach in what is definitely a change of scenery.

However, what hasn't changed is the cheetah mentality that he has carried with him from Durham to Lubbock and now to Blacksburg engraining that into the players he coaches and building a fraternity of sorts of all the DBs that he's coached, plenty of whom have reached the NFL.

So what exactly is the Cheetah mentality, and the brand & fraternity that it's become? Derek Jones explained it to me recently during Media Day starting with his insights on the cheetah and his fascination with his favorite animal from childhood.

"Cheetah has always been my favorite animal. When I was a kid, lot of people were watching cartoons on Saturday morning and I was trying to watch National Geographic. Always fascinated with the animal and as I got into the coaching profession, a lot of the characteristics of a cheetah are very similar to the characteristics of a defensive back. The speed, the change of direction skills, the vision. And even when you look up the makeup, defensive backs are not the size of lions and tigers, they are more the size of cheetahs," Jones said.

"Probably the most interesting part about is it's both predator and prey. It has to hunt in order to survive, and it's very similar to being out on an island by yourself, you either make plays or you don't, and if you show any signs of weakness, they are going to come at you again. More than anything, just the mentality of the animal is something that has fascinated me."

The cheetah brand started when he arrived at Duke as the DBs coach back in 2008 when the Blue Devil program was in bad shape to say the least.

"So when I got to Duke University, they had won, I think, 10 games in 8 years. There was nobody who had played in the secondary, or better yet on defense, that was in the NFL. So I wanted to establish something to give the guys an identity. And I had always used the word cheetah as a coaching phrase and basically what cheetah from a coaching phrase is 'get your eyes on the hip of the opposition'. You use it in tackling, you use it in coverage, you use it in pursuit in a lot of different things," Jones said.

Jones' use of the cheetah terminology also enables him to react more succinctly to what he sees happening on the field without having to stop a drill and give a long comment, enabling more reps.

"And what it does is it enables me to be able to coach without giving dissertations. I can tell these guys what this means in the room, I can tell what it means in my drills so instead of stopping and having to go through a whole dissertation, I can just yell across the field cheetah, and the guy knows he should have had his eyes on the hips of the guy. And I can again do that in pursuit, I can do it in tackling, I can do it in coverage because it just simply means put your eyes on the hips of the guy which enables you to be able to get in position to make plays," Jones said.

Over time, Jones has produced plenty of NFL talent including Ross Cockrell and Breon Borders most notably at a place without much of a track record. Jones' DBs have formed a brotherhood over time that has gone by the "coalition" name with that name actually being connected to the facts about what a group of cheetahs is called.

"But the unique thing about it is that I didn't know what a pack of cheetahs is called. So I looked it up on my phone and found out it was called a coalition. But the unique thing about cheetahs is, male cheetahs will only hunt with their brothers, they won't hunt with strange cheetahs. And even though they don't practice hunting together when they do, they strategically know how to hunt together. One goes a little bit faster than the other because they can't run at a top speed for so long," Jones said.

This is another area where Jones sees plenty of overlap between how cheetahs work together from how cheetahs often work alone but have to be on the same page when they do work together.

"And that's the same way you have to be in the secondary, everybody has to be on one accord in order to be successful. Cheetahs generally hunt alone just as we do as defensive backs in man coverage, you're by yourself, but when you call zone, everyone has to be on the same accord," Jones said.

Virginia Tech's defensive backs have also embraced that cheetah mentality especially in the cornerback room with Dorian Strong having this to say about what the cheetah mentality means to him.

"So track and attack, he says 'cheetahs chase from behind' and 'cheetah going to hunt for their own meal'. So when you're in that position, ball in the air, if you're one step behind, catch up, time to make a play. And with the track and attack thing, that just comes with tackling. Track that near hip and attack, you don't break down, that what he harps on, and just trigger," Strong said.

Veteran safety Nasir Peoples may not be specifically be in the CBs room but there is plenty of overlap in the secondary with that aggressive mentality of a cheetah being something that crosses over from the cornerbacks to the safeties as well.

"I would say it is running to the ball full speed, going on and taking the ball, not being the person that is waiting but being aggressive and taking the ball. Tracking and attacking is the main thing that we work on that they preach on," Peoples said.

In sports, we see plenty of things that are more fake social media hype than real, but the Cheetah mentality clearly isn't a fake social media thing. Rather, it's an engrained identity and mentality that Virginia Tech's defensive backs are embracing because of its genuine nature and the quality coaching and training that Derek Jones backs it up with.