Kansas junior defensive tackle J.J. Holmes said he didn’t play football for Chipley High in the small Florida panhandle town until his senior year. Basketball was his sport before that. But the seeds were sewn for football success long, long before he debuted.
For as long as Holmes can remember, he worked for the family firewood business, which has branched into other businesses, including an antique shop.
“I was 4 or 5 when I first got on the job, 6 or 7 when I knew what I was doing,” Holmes said.
When he returns to Chipley, Holmes said, his parents still put him to work.
“Every day,” he said. “I cut trees, carry furniture, things like that."
On one of those trips earlier this year, Holmes enjoyed too much “good country food,” at the dinner table at home and put on about 15 pounds.
The strength and conditioning staff has educated him on the best methods to take off excess weight and although nobody has said he is at his ideal weight yet, he has impressed coaches enough that he is listed at the top of the depth chart at nose tackle, starting on the same defensive line as tackle Daniel Wise and ends Josh Ehambe and Dorance Armstrong.
"I love playing with J.J.," Armstrong said. "He's always quick with everything he does. I just love the way he plays. He has fast feet as big as he is. I’m ready to see what he can do.”"
Holmes, pursued doggedly by recruiting coordinator Kenny Perry during his two seasons at Hutchinson County Community College, said he also received scholarship offers from Florida State, Kentucky, Missouri, South Florida and Tennessee. Perry beat all of those schools to the punch and Holmes never forgot that.
“I felt like I was at home on my visit,” Holmes said. “Coach Perry really influenced me because of the person he is.”
He is listed at 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, built for the position he plays and blessed with nimble enough feet to play the sport that was his first love.
“I was a basketball star back home and I just tried football,” Holmes said. “I was at left tackle and they tried me at defensive tackle. I made a couple of plays, so they played me both ways.”
He became a full-time defensive player in junior college.
“I like D-tackle better,” Holmes said. “I get to hit people, be more aggressive. O-line is a lot of sitting back and waiting instead of attacking.”
Holmes identified his greatest tools as, “probably my hand strength and my aggression, moving the line of scrimmage I’m pretty good at.”
As first-year defensive line coach Jesse Williams put it, Holmes is “country strong.”
“We saw the talent from Day 1, but the biggest thing he’s done in his transformation from spring to fall camp is he’s gotten himself in way better shape so he’s able to play extra snaps,” Williams said. “Now his athletic talent is starting to come. By no means is he a a finished product, but he’s doing a nice job.”
In the process, he still finds time to crack up teammates.
“Every fourth word has some sort of humor in it, and that’s not a bad thing,” Williams said. “He’s just a big, fun-loving guy and if we can get that going in the right way then that can be productive for the Jayhawks. You can’t help but chuckle a little at some of the things he says. Sometimes it’s a little hard understanding him with his southern drawl, but I think we’re all getting a little used to it.”
Armstrong likes the impact Holmes' humor has on peers.
“The dude’s a comedian," Armstrong said. "He always has positive energy. He’s never a Debbie Downer, always in a good mood. I think that’s something that fits into our D-line room, a lot of funny guys who keep the dudes laughing and in a positive mood.”
Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen sounded as if he expects to see a better No. 88 in the middle of the D-line as his two-year Kansas career progresses.
“J.J. has talent and he’s learning what it takes to play at this level day in and day out and the mentality that he has to bring,” defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said. “He’s a talented guy and when he gets it figured out — and he will because he cares — he’s going to be a really good player for us. He’s proven he can hold his own in there. He’s a big man and it’s hard to move him.”
He’s at the top of the depth chart and he has the talent to stay there. It might be hard to move him.