ECU Pirates junior receiver Isaiah Jones
(Photography by Jay Clark)
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RECEIVER AND ROLE MODEL
Jones aims to lead on offense, on the field and in the classroom
By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services
Isaiah “Zay” Jones knows he has an opportunity to accomplish a lot on the football field this fall. And he knows how to get there.
“It starts with me,” the junior receiver says.
But the gridiron isn’t the only place Jones excels. He’s an Honor Roll student, and last November, Capital One named him to its Academic All-District 3 First Team.
“I grew up in a household with two parents who stressed academics and sports,” he says, adding that earning his bachelor’s degree is a priority. “I really want to do it to make my mother proud.”
The way his career at East Carolina University has progressed, he’ll have a prime opportunity this fall to make his family, his teammates and ECU fans proud—on the field and in the classroom.
Getting ready for the season
Jones took Spanish classes during this year’s summer school sessions and worked with teammates on seven-on-seven drills to sharpen his skills and get in top physical condition. Standing 6-foot-1, his weight had climbed to 197 pounds by June.
Jones, shown in Spanish class, is as serious about his studies as he is about football.
Of all positions, wide receiver is wide open after the departures of seniors Cam Worthy —ECU’s deep threat who signed with the Baltimore Ravens in May—and Justin Hardy—the NCAA all-time leader in receptions who’s now with the Atlanta Falcons.
“He will become our go-to guy,” says Donnie Kirkpatrick, the Pirates’ assistant head coach, inside receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. “He will be the leader for us offensively.”
Considering his performance his first two seasons, that prediction isn’t a stretch. Jones played in all 13 games last year for the Pirates, pulling in 81 catches for 830 yards and five touchdowns, including six catches for 116 yards in ECU’s 70-41 romp over North Carolina. He returned 24 kickoffs for 477 yards—a 19.9-yard average. In the Pirates’ bowl game against Florida, Jones caught six passes for 64 yards.
Those numbers built on his 2013 rookie season, when he earned a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team. He played in all 13 games, starting eight, and caught 62 passes for 604 yards and five touchdowns.
In the Pirates’ bowl victory over Ohio, Jones had eight catches for 48 yards. He was selected wide receiver of the year at the team’s postseason awards banquet.
In this April’s spring game, Jones caught two passes for 20 yards, including an 11-yard scoring strike from quarterback Kurt Benkert.
“He had a great relationship with Shane,” Kirkpatrick says, referring to former quarterback Shane Carden, now with the Chicago Bears. “I kind of see that coming on with him and Kirk. They’re a lot alike, just like Shane and Justin were a lot alike. They’re over here all the time. They’re always doing extra work.”
Benkert praises Jones’ work ethic and predicts the effort will produce results.
“He goes all out every single play,” the sophomore quarterback says. “Doesn’t matter if it is practice or a game. He has a high motor and is a great competitor.
“We have been doing this since he got here in the summer of 2013,” he says about Jones and him working together. “We have a great feel for each other, and it is important to have that. You will see it in the fall how the hard work together helped us be where we are.”
The team will be adjusting to new offensive coordinator Dave Nichol, but that probably won’t take long. Nichol will be starting his fourth season as an ECU coach, most recently leading the outside receivers unit. He got his start at Texas Tech, taught former offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley the spread offense TTU and ECU use and came to ECU from Arizona. He knows the players and the system.
Jones is focusing on opening day, Sept. 5 against Towson, as the most important game of the season. But many fans—and probably more than a few players—are looking at the following week’s bowl rematch against Florida in Gainesville. Other away games against Navy, Brigham Young and Central Florida mean the Pirates will have to play well to grab resume-boosting road wins this season.
Jones says his goals are simple. “To win as many games as possible—that’s the goal of the whole team—to win the American Athletic Conference and to be the greatest player I can be in the remaining years I have here,” he says.
2015 ECU Football Schedule
6 p.m., W 28-20
7 p.m., L 31-24
3:30 p.m., L 45-21
at Brigham Young
The best he can be could be very good. He’s been named to this season’s Paul Hornung Award watch list. The award goes to major college football’s most versatile player.
“He is an all-out effort type of player,” Kirkpatrick says. “He physically is at a different speed than everybody else on the field.”
Jones strives to work on every play, not just the ones where he touches the ball. “Even if I catch 10 passes, the other 70 plays, you have to be doing something,” he said. Usually, that means blocking for his teammates.
“By the spring, he had really become a good, physical blocker,” Kirkpatrick says. “He never takes a play off. He really takes that to heart.”
That might go back to the advice his father gives him.
“Don’t stop until the whistle blows,” Robert Jones says he tells his son. It’s when players aren’t concentrating that an opponent comes out of nowhere and smacks them. He should know. The former ECU great is a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Dallas Cowboys.
Overlooked as a player
Born in Dallas in 1995, Jones was a three-star recruit out of Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, Texas. He also earned letters in track, winning the district triple-jump championship and competing on the relay teams.
Despite his accomplishments, many schools apparently saw a skinny kid who wouldn’t make much of an impact in the college game. But the Pirates coaching staff saw something else. One night after supper, Jones emailed a highlight film of himself to coach Ruffin McNeill. Within an hour or so, the coach was on the phone with Jones offering him a scholarship.
Robert Jones, left and Jeff Blake, right
The Sports Family
From 1988-91, Robert Jones starred at ECU, becoming the first player in school history to be named a consensus All-American. His senior season, he teamed with quarterback Jeff Blake—now Isaiah Jones’ uncle—to lead ECU to an 11-1 record and a 37-34 victory over N.C. State in the Peach Bowl.
Jones played on three Super Bowl-winning teams with the Dallas Cowboys (1993, 1994, 1996), was a 1994 Pro Bowl selection and was inducted into the ECU Hall of Fame in 2004. Meanwhile, Blake played for seven NFL teams over a 13-year career and was a 1995 Pro Bowl selection.
Cousin Torre Blake plays for the ECU volleyball team, and another cousin, Emory Blake, caught a touchdown pass in the 2010 Bowl Championship Series national championship game while playing for Auburn and spent a couple of seasons on the St. Louis Rams roster. Older brother Cayleb Jones is a wide receiver for the Arizona Wildcats.
A younger brother plays high school football in Austin, and a younger sister plays volleyball.
“There were a lot of people who overlooked him because he was a late bloomer,” says Kirkpatrick. “We knew he’d get bigger, stronger and probably a faster player as well.
“They sure did (overlook him), and we’re glad they did. It worked out well for us.”
Robert Jones says ECU recognized what his son could become. “They saw a little kid who kept working and kept working and nobody gave him a chance,” he says. “(Coach McNeill) knew the work ethic was there.”
Isaiah Jones says he feels ECU wanted him for who he was and who he could become, not for who his father was. He also says he’s a football player because he wants to be, not because he was steered this way. And while his father had a successful professional sports career, Jones says family is more important.
“He’s just a fan of us,” he says of himself and his five siblings. “He wants to watch us. To us, it’s cool (being the children of a former professional football player), but to him, he’s more proud to be our father.”
The elder Jones agrees and sounds like many other parents who crowd bleachers and grandstands to watch their children play.
“It brings so much joy to watch him play even when he just catches a pass for 10 yards,” Jones says. “His No. 1 goal is to help this team be a championship team and let the rankings and bowls fall where they may.”
Academics and leadership
While Robert Jones prefers to let ECU’s coaches do the football coaching, he does the life coaching.
“I do feel like every other parent,” Jones says. “You want your kids to do better than you.” For him, the first step in achieving that is finishing college.
“Having a degree and having an education is really important,” he says he tells his six children. “It’s vital. You can be whatever you want to be if you have that degree.”
He says that when he retired from football, every job in the NFL league office required at least a bachelor’s degree. Today, he and his wife own a business selling cleaning products.
“People want to see you finish,” he says. “Those kinds of things people look at from a job perspective.”
Isaiah Jones is a communications major with a 3.58 cumulative GPA. In the classroom, he has earned ECU Honor Roll and Dean’s List status while also receiving 2013-14 Conference USA Commissioner Honor Roll accolades.
Making his parents proud isn’t his only motivation to do well in school and complete his bachelor’s degree. He also wants to be a role model for younger players.
“I want them to see it can be done,” he says. “They can come to college, whether they’re on scholarship or walking on, and do whatever things they choose to do.”
He talks of what he has learned in classes about interpersonal and organizational communication and theories of persuasion and how professors have had an impact on him.
Brian O’Hara, assistant director of student development in the ECU athletic department, says Jones has been committed to his studies since he arrived on campus.
“He came in ready for college and really motivated,” O’Hara says.
Jones says the coaching staff, and in particular coach Ruffin McNeill, stress schoolwork. And at ECU, leadership is valued as integral to academics. It’s another role Jones is eager to take on.
“I try to push myself,” he says. “You can’t lead if your self is not ready to go through what your team is about to endure.”
Coaches agree. “He is obviously just an awesome young man in every way … he’s a great student, totally outstanding, a natural leader,” Kirkpatrick says. “He’s the kind of person young people just like and gravitate toward.”
“He has a little bit of an aura about him,” Kirkpatrick says. “You know he’s going to be something special.”
Or, as Robert Jones says: “Do everything 100 percent. Strive for the best.
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