LUBBOCK, Texas — When Duke safety Marquis Waters called Derek Jones to tell him he was transferring to Texas Tech, Jones was not exactly in a position to celebrate.
Jones, Texas Tech’s secondary coach and associate head coach, was bedridden with a nasty case of COVID-19.
But if Jones had been virus-free, he would have had plenty of reason to rejoice. Not only did the Red Raiders land a player with four years of power-conference experience, Jones reunited with a young man who he coached for three seasons.
Before coming to Texas Tech, Jones coached at Duke, where he served not just as a position coach but also something of a mentor and father figure for Waters, he told reporters in the spring.
“Marquis and I have a very, very unique relationship,” Jones said.
When Jones heard that Waters entered his name into the transfer portal, his first thought was not to bring him to Lubbock. Jones said he wanted to guide Waters through the process and ensure he ended up at a place that fit him well — even fielding calls and answering questions from coaches at other schools who wanted to recruit Waters. But after evaluating his options, Waters called the ailing Jones to tell him that he was coming to Texas Tech.
Jones explained that he has a strong relationship with Waters’ grandmother — the woman who raised him. She wanted the safety to reunite with his old coach in Lubbock. Even so, Jones feels that Waters was leaning that way the whole time.
“Ultimately, Marquis knew from the beginning that he wanted to come, not only to play for me, but to have a little bit more of that relationship,” Jones said.
Waters describes himself as a player that will do anything to win, whether that means putting in an extra ounce of effort or switching positions. Jones gave him the nickname “Muddy,” which, along with the shortened version “Mud,” has since become his go-to moniker among teammates. The nickname was formed partially after the famous blues singer Muddy Waters, whose music Waters is planning to check out at Jones’ request, but also because the coach felt it suited his hard-nosed brand of play.
Jones appeals to Waters because Jones reminded him of his high school coaches.
At Delray Beach Atlantic in Florida, Waters was instructed by men that prioritized candor, even if it meant revealing unpleasant truths to their young subject.
That’s how Waters likes it, and Jones gave him the same kind of coaching at Duke. Waters would rather be told what he’s doing wrong than what he’s doing right, and Jones is happy to oblige.
“One thing about Coach Jones, he’s always going to tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Waters said, “so that’s kind of what brought me in. He just always tells me the truth, and he stays on me. He brings the best out of me. I like that type of mentality from a coach.”
Waters is not afraid to dole out advice either. He makes his presence felt at practice, constantly barking out instructions and encouragement at teammates.
While he has four years of college football experience under his belt, it’s still Waters’ first year in the Texas Tech locker room. He built a relationship with his teammates by arriving in Lubbock early and working out with other players before official spring practices began.
Once his teammates saw what he was about, they were receptive to his advice.
“I was building a relationship with the team then,” he said of the early workouts. “They see as we’re practicing, if I’m doing stuff right, they listen to me — and I listen to them.”
Waters is one of several defensive players that Matt Wells brought in from the transfer portal to juice a defense that allowed 36.7 points per game last season, a bottom-20 mark in the FBS.
Cornerbacks Malik Dunlap and Rayshad Williams joined the Red Raiders from North Carolina State and UCLA, respectively; safety Reggie Pearson came in from Wisconsin, and linebacker Jesiah Pierre transferred from Florida.
Waters, Dunlap, Williams and Pierre are all roommates (Pearson enrolled at Texas Tech later than the other transfers). When they’re not duking it out on EA Sports’ UFC video game, they’re pouring over tape on their iPads, an experience that helps them grow as players.
“When you watch film, people watch film from different perspectives,” Dunlap said. “Mud loves watching film, so he’ll be helping me study film. It gets us all better.”
Coaches and teammates both noted how often they see Waters in the film room, and his appetite for work is one reason why Jones brought him in.
Last season, Jones tried to instill a weekly tradition of his defensive backs holding a players-only meeting on Thursday’s of game week, but found it difficult to execute. But add in Waters’ work ethic and his familiarity with Jones’ expectations, and Jones is confident that the whole group will be more prepared.
“Now bringing a guy into the program that understands exactly what we want, I think that’s just gonna make us better from a preparation standpoint,” Jones said. “He brings a lot in the aspect of being an example to point to and saying how to do things.”
Jones described the 16-year-old version of Waters that he first met as quiet and standoffish. Anyone who’s had a conversation with today’s version of Waters can see that he’s nothing like that now. He sports a charismatic personality, comfortable cracking jokes without sacrificing his pronounced passion for football.
This version of Waters is among the most experienced players on Texas Tech’s roster, someone who can help the team both on the field and in the locker room. He was on the field for 2,869 snaps at Duke and will play many more at Texas Tech, under the man who coached him at his previous stop.