Ask almost anybody outside of eastern Tennessee to name the leading rusher in the Southeastern Conference the last two years and the most likely answer by far would be, "Bo Jackson of Auburn."
The best running back, by yards, in the SEC is right here practicing to play Maryland in the Sun Bowl Saturday. His name is Johnnie Jones. And all he's done is gain more than 1,000 yards rushing each of the last two seasons, which means he's the SEC's most productive rusher since Herschel Walker.
Considering that distinction, it's difficult to believe Jones is so unknown outside the Southeast. Maryland, however, knows all it needs to about Jones. His 159 yards rushing in last year's Tangerine Bowl led Tennessee to a 30-23 victory over the Terrapins.
Jones definitely is the wrong person to ask about Jones. He's just like his beloved '71 Ford pickup: runs efficiently and quietly. Jones is so quiet, in fact, that Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors couldn't even get Jones to tell him he was coming to Knoxville to play football.
"He was even more quiet back then than he is now," Majors said this week after a practice. "I was very concerned. Mississippi was courting him pretty heavily, too. It's only an hour or two from his home (Munford, Tenn.) and he was holding hands pretty tight with a little gal down there.
"We went to his house one night to see if he was going to sign with us and we couldn't get a word out of him. He'd just sit there and smile, he wouldn't say a thing. I started thinking the girlfriend would win out. But his parents wanted him to come to Tennessee soooooo bad. I told him there are lots of little gals out there."
Jones, for whatever reasons, went to Tennessee, but for a while it didn't appear he'd stay there. He was unhappy over playing time as a sophomore, getting only 93 carries. And his junior year didn't start any better.
A sprained ankle kept him out of the opener. He missed another game because of his grandfather's death and, against Auburn, Jones carried only one time and lost two yards on a fumble. After that play he took a seat on the bench the rest of the game. That night he drove back to Munford, but his parents talked him into returning to school.
"Things were kind of rough," Jones said. "I talked to my father. He told me just go ahead and fight it out. I didn't tell Coach Majors, but he could probably tell by the way I was acting. It shocked me that I was able to get 1,000 yards that year the way it started out."
Majors, recalling Jones' unhappiness, said, "Anybody gets a little discouraged sometimes, but very rarely does a good football player transfer."
Jones' decision to return to Knoxville was the beginning of a surprising success story. He is not what one would call a sweet runner and doesn't have exceptional speed.
The conclusion is, Jones is faster on the field than his times in sprints would indicate and is adept at finding the holes his blockers have opened. Majors began calling Jones' number on the sprint draw, which sends Jones off tackle most of the time. That play accounted for a third of Tennessee's rushing yardage last year.
Jones, after returning, gained 100 yards or more in six of the remaining eight games. And his 248 yards against Vanderbilt broke his mark of 234 yards established earlier in the season against Rutgers.
With 1,116 yards, he became the first Tennessee player ever to rush 1,000 yards. And one of the recruiting pitches made by Tennessee actually came true. Ed Murphey took Jones aside and said, "Johnnie, one day you're going to score the winning touchdown to beat Alabama."
Sure enough, with three minutes remaining at Birmingham, Jones took a pitchout and ran 66 yards for the game-winning touchdown. It was Tennessee's second victory over the Tide in 12 years.
Nothing that dramatic happened to Jones this season. But he opened with a 203-yard game against Washington State, then 197 yards against Utah. He added four more performances of 100 or more yards and rushed for 1,290 (an average of 5.6 yards per carry) in 11 games.
And with Tony Robinson, a highly regarded junior, at quarterback, the Volunteers have a more balanced offense.
"People can't just think about stopping me," Jones said. But stopping Jones goes a long way toward success for any defense.
Maryland assistant equipment manager Todd Goodman was stepped on by a bull today in a bullfighting exhibition staged for the coaches of both teams. Goodman, just wanting to take a picture with the red cape in his hands, apparently got the 1,300-pound bull riled up.
Many of the Maryland players on hand, used to teasing Goodman, began chanting, "Go Bull . . . Go Bull . . . " Goodman started running, then hit the dirt and the bull ran over him. Goodman got up, adjusted his spectacles, and walked away uninjured. He was teased unmercifully later at practice.