ECU football: Once overlooked, Zay Jones on verge of NCAA record
In hindsight, it's hard to believe so many schools allowed Isaiah "Zay" Jones to get out of Texas.
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Believing strongly he was a Football Bowl Subdivision player, Jones used a family connection to get a look. Robert Jones, Zay's father, is one of the greatest players in East Carolina football history — the only consensus All-American to come through the program and a member of the school's athletic Hall of Fame.
Zay Jones sent his high school highlight tape to East Carolina and head coach Ruffin McNeill, who could not believe the present that had been dropped in his lap.
"Coach McNeill called me a couple days later and said that East Carolina was my home and that he wanted to see me in Purple and Gold," Jones said. "I really took that to heart and committed."
There wasn't much of a choice since Arkansas State was the only other school that offered a scholarship to the wide receiver from Stephen F. Austin High School. Jones was rated a three-star recruit and posted modest statistics at the prep level.
"I was a late bloomer in high school. I didn't really peak physically until my senior year," said Jones, who had a delayed growth spurt. "Also, my older brother was a five-star recruit so maybe a lot of schools just saw me as the little brother."
Cayleb Jones, a wide receiver who played at both Texas and Arizona, spent training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles before being waived.
Four years later, Jones is one of the best wide receivers in all of college football and on the verge of a major milestone. The 6-foot-1, 197-pound senior is eight shy of setting the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record for career catches.
Coincidentally, the mark is held by former East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy, now with the Atlanta Falcons. Hardy hauled in 387 receptions during his time in Greenville, a standard Jones may well surpass on Saturday against Navy.
Jones did not hesitate when asked how he went from overlooked recruit to record-setting performer.
"Just my resiliency and persistence. Being told no and being told you can't is highly motivating," he said. "Just a continuous hunger and desire to be great. I wanted to prove that I was who I believed I could be."
This season, Jones leads NCAA FBS in four categories -- total receptions (139), receiving yards (1,473), receptions per game (13.9) and receiving yards per game (147.3).
"I always felt like I had all the attributes to be a Division I receiver. I wasn't necessarily the fastest kid and I might not look all that great physically, but I had heart and was a real student of the game."
Jones, who was recently named one of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver, needs 17 catches to set the NCAA FBS single-season record. That mark is owned by Bowling Freddie Barnes, who had 155 catches in 2009.
East Carolina wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan said Jones possesses a slew of intangible qualities that separate him from the competition.
"First and foremost, Zay has tremendous character, both personal and as a football player. He competes very hard every day and is just a pleasure to be around," McGeoghan said. "He also has great toughness. Zay is extremely tough, both mentally and physically. He responds when you coach him really hard. He wants to be pushed because he wants to get better."
McGeoghan continued: "Zay's football intelligence is very high. It did not take him long to learn all five receivers positions we have across the board. He understands things coverage wise and has a lot of common sense. He is also very, very dependable. Zay is always where's he supposed to be when he's supposed to be. He practices really hard and is endurance is second to none."
Earlier this season, Jones set a single-game school record by snatching 22 receptions in a loss to South Carolina. He continues to record double-digit catches every game despite being double- and triple-teamed.
"We've seen it all as far as coverages. There's no surprise that we're going to throw the ball to No. 7 on Saturday so teams have tried everything to try to stop Zay," McGeoghan said. "We'll move him around so defenses can't totally key on him. It doesn't matter what the scheme is. Zay has still gotten open more than any receiver in the country."
McGeoghan said Jones has several physical attributes that contribute to his success. He has abnormally long arms for his size and very big hands. While the 40-yard dash time might not be anything special, Jones has the game speed you cannot measure or teach.
"Zay has an unbelievable catch radius. He tracks the ball really well and can contort his body in any direction," McGeoghan said. "I think his greatest asset is the ability to catch the contested football. Zay just has an uncanny knack for always coming away with the football."
Hardy, a fourth round draft choice of the Falcons in 2015, will be in attendance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday in anticipation of seeing his record broken. Jones, who played alongside Hardy for two seasons, was very appreciative of that gesture.
"Having Justin come before was an advantage for me. I was able to see how it was done and pull parts of his game and incorporate them into mine," Jones said. "I have a lot of respect for Justin and the high-level of play he demonstrated on a daily basis. Now Justin is playing where I ultimately want to get. I will always look up to him as a role model."
Whether it's this Saturday or the next, Jones will no doubt set the NCAA record for career receptions and admitted the magnitude of the accomplishment is mind-boggling.
never needed hype pic.twitter.com/B0Vk9Ho0fI— Zay Jones (@ZayJones7) November 17, 2016
"It's hard to imagine doing something that's never be done. That's something to be really, really proud of," Jones said. "There are Hall of Fame receivers that didn't make as many catches during their college careers. It is something I would be very grateful to have happen and cherish forever."
Since it was established in 1994, the Biletnikoff Award has gone to a who's who of great receivers, including Randy Moss (Marshall, 1997), Larry Fitzgerald (Pittsburgh, 2003), Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech, 2006) and Amari Cooper (Alabama, 2014). Naturally, Jones would love to add his name to that illustrious list.
"Hearing my name called for that award would mean the world for me. It's something I have dreamed about. To be able to say that I was the nation's best," Jones said. "If I did win, it wouldn't just be for me. It would be for East Carolina and City of Greenville. My greatest goal is to inspire others and motivate others."
This article was written by Bill Wagner from The Capital, Annapolis, Md. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.