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Jerry Sullivan: Falcons' Julio Jones makes the NFL's top offense run

HOUSTON – Julio Jones says he didn't follow the NFL as a young boy in deep southern Alabama. He has one vague memory of watching Barry Sanders on a film clip. Football wasn't a big part of his life until he was almost a teenager.

"I was always outside," Jones said Wednesday during a Super Bowl media session. "I mean, I had a childhood, running around and having fun. No TV, none of that. Even the Super Bowl. I didn't know any of that growing up. No, sir."

Track was his first sporting love. Running and jumping were the simple, carefree activities of boyhood. He didn't play competitive football until he was 12, when his mother signed him up for a youth league. Jones, whose actual first name is 'Quintorris,' was longing for a team sport and figured he would be good at it.

"I told her we weren't going to lose," he said, "and we didn't. We went 21-0. I was out there running past kids and I was hitting kids, and I'm like, 'I'm strong at 12 years old!'"

He has been running past people ever since. What Jones began to suspect as a 12 -year-old has become evident to NFL fans. He's a physical freak, one of the most explosive athletes in league history and the top receiving threat on a Falcons team that will take on the Patriots Sunday in the Super Bowl.

Jones never lost his love for track. He became a two-time state high school champion in the long jump and triple jump and Mr. Alabama track athlete in 2007. But it soon became apparent that football was his true calling, leading him to a standout college career at Alabama, then fame and riches in the NFL.

There was no doubt about his rare athletic skills. Atlanta made that clear by trading five picks (including two first-rounders) to jump 21 spots to snag him with the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft, the same draft in which his Alabama teammate, Marcell Dareus, went third to the Bills.

It didn't matter to the Falcons that Jones had broken his foot before that draft. He had a stunning combine, despite the injury. Atlanta, coming off a discouraging home playoff loss to the Packers, needed a dynamic receiving threat for their young star quarterback, Matt Ryan.

Jones, who is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, justified the pick with a terrific rookie year. But injuries have been a problem from the start. In 2013, he broke the same foot again in a Monday night loss and had a screw put in, ending his season after just five games.

That story is familiar to Bills fans, who have watched Sammy Watkins battle injuries after Buffalo used two first-round picks to move up for him in the 2014 draft. Watkins, who drew comparisons to Jones, suffered the same injury (coincidentally, known as a Jones fracture) and recently had a second surgery.

Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons addresses the media during a Super Bowl LI press conference Wednesday in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images)

Jones said Wednesday that he hasn't spoken with Watkins and wasn't aware he had the same injury. But he offered the same advice he gave Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant when he suffered a Jones fracture, and which might have come in handy when Sammy came back early this past season: Don't rush it.

"You've got to go slow and take your time," Jones said. "I had two surgeries on my foot as well. It's all about doing the right thing. You have to take care of yourself. I took a lot of Vitamin D. Obviously, Sammy is very explosive. Cutting on that bone can be tough."

Bills fans can take hope in the fact that Jones came back even better from his foot surgery in 2013. He blossomed late in 2014, posting back-to-back games of 189 and 259 in consecutive weeks. Before the 2015 season, he signed a five-year, $71.5 million extension. And the best was yet to come.

In 2015, Jones caught 136 passes for 1,871 yards, the second-highest total in history in both categories. In Week 4 of this season, he caught 12 passes for 300 yards against Carolina. Ryan threw for 503 yards that day, making them the first QB and receiver to go 500-300 in a single NFL game.

Since coming back from his second foot surgery, Jones has 323 catches for 4,873 yards and 20 TDs in 45 regular-season games. That's a bit over seven catches and 108 yards a game, which projects to 115 receptions for 1,733 yards over a full season.

"He's a beast, an absolute stud," said Ryan.

"Julio's a stud," said Atlanta fullback Patrick DiMarco. "He's one of the most freakish athletes I've ever been around, one of the most explosive players I've ever played with. The guy just knows how to win. He's an amazing competitor."

Jones is supremely confident (the self-declared team ping pong champ), but a team player at heart. That's why he eventually gravitated to football, because his successes weren't solitary. He could share them with other people.

"I wanted to play football because it's like family," said Jones, who turns 28 on Friday. "It teaches you a lot about life and relationships. I like doing my job so other guys can do theirs. It's a great thing to have 11 guys on the same page doing the correct things to be successful."

He rises up in the big moments. In the 2012 NFC title game, Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two TDs in a loss to the Niners. In this year's title game, he had nine catches and 180 yards and two TDs in a 44-21 win over the Packers.

This year, after three non-playoff disappointments, it all came together for Ryan, Jones and the Falcons, who won the NFC South and scored 540 points, the eighth-highest total by an NFL team in the regular season.

Jones had 83 catches for 1,409 yards, despite a nagging turf toe injury that caused him to miss two games in December. The toe still isn't 100 percent, though you wouldn't have guessed from his dynamic play in the championship game.

Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons speaks with the media during Super Bowl 51 Opening Night at Minute Maid Park on Monday. (Getty Images)

The question is whether he will shine one more time in the Bowl. New England coach Bill Belichick has a history of shutting down an opponent's main receiving threat in a game. It stands to reason that the Pats will try to contain Jones.

There's talk of star cornerback Malcolm Butler playing him man-to-man some.

"That's OK," said Jones, who says no one man can shut him down. "I welcome that. I'm a competitor. I don't shy away from nothing. One on one, it's going to be hard. Going to be hard."

If the Pats give him double coverage, that's fine with Jones.

"If you scheme properly, that's cool," he said. "I don't mind it at all, because we've got a lot of weapons: Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Aldrick Robinson. We got the backs in the backfield. So I don't mind if you try to take me away. It's not a one-man show. It' s a team effort.

"I've been dealing with this the whole year. I usually get two men. Every now and then, a team will single me up, and I'll try to make them pay. Anything can happen on the field. I'm capable of anything."

That includes making other guys better by his mere presence. Jones had 35 or fewer yards receiving four times this season. Atlanta won them all. He had one catch for 16 yards against the Saints on a Monday night. The Falcons won, 45-32.

The following week, he had that epic 300-yard receiving day against the Panthers. Was that a once-in-a-lifetime game, I asked him?

"It definitely could happen again," he said. He flashed his best little boy smile, as if to say it could happen sooner than you think.

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