Nick Jones (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Ron Aiken, GamecockCentral.com
Gone are the dreadlocks, gone are the old jersey numbers and, thanks to his play on the field, gone is the perception of Nick Jones as simply Marcus Lattimore's childhood best friend and teammate from Byrnes High School.
With a breakout two-touchdown, 97-yard performance against Georgia coming off solid outings last season in the Clemson game and Outback Bowl, Jones suddenly has become the No. 1 receiver for the No. 13 Gamecocks, even taking over the jersey number (No. 1) worn last season by Jacksonville Jaguar Ace Sanders.
"It's a new me," Jones said of the changes he's undergone over the offseason. "I didn't like the thought of being known as Marcus Lattimore's teammate. I wanted to make a name for myself. I wanted to work harder and be more dedicated to the game.
"Dating back to my high school days, being a teammate of Marcus, I've been kind of overlooked since those days. I don't mind it at all. It kind of makes me want to be better than what people think, so I kind of love it. I just have to take advantage of my opportunities as they're given to me."
It seems in year four of his career that Jones - or "Nicky," as Steve Spurrier likes to refer to him as - is ready to earn the accolades accorded him as a three-star prospect out of high school. After only catching only 12 balls all year in both 2011 and 2012 and one touchdown, through just two games in 2013 Jones has caught 10 passes and doubled his career touchdown total in one afternoon in Athens.
"I played a little bit two years ago, started a couple of games, so I got a little experience out there," Jones said. "I'm just a lot more comfortable out there this year. I feel good.
"I'm one of the guys that's been working real hard. Not anything has been given to me. I've been working for things all my life. To have that kind of game on Saturday just makes me more comfortable and ready to go."
Jones' hard work has been noticed by Spurrier dating back to the spring.
"Nicky is in better shape," Spurrier said. "That's the first thing I've noticed, maybe in the spring and the summer. You'd think a guy about 5-7 wouldn't need to lose weight, but he needed to lose weight.
"He's quick. When we do our sprints after practice, he's one of the first guys over and back. I noticed last night. so he's in tip-top shape. He's a really, really good route runner with good hands, so there's a chance he may get featured a little more as we go."
For a player who has labored under the long shadow of good friends Lattimore and Sanders, Jones is finally ready for that role - as himself.
"Watching Marcus and watching Ace and seeing those guys go to the next level has been a lot of help to me," Jones said. "I've seen what those guys did and how they prepared for the games and carried themselves.
"I don't have Marcus here anymore. I don't have Ace here anymore. I just want to make a whole new change so it can just be about me."