After Maryland defeated Texas in its season opener on Saturday, Nicole Baran waited where the players would soon walk onto the team buses. Her son, Jeshaun Jones, had just become the star of his first college football game.
The freshman wide receiver finally emerged after accounting for three touchdowns on his first three college touches — one rushing, one receiving and one passing. The remarkable start to his college career prompted a look into record books and led to jokes about how his fourth and final touch of the game resulted in a mere eight-yard gain.
Before Jones stepped onto the bus, Baran took pictures with her son and congratulated him. Then she pulled him in tight.
“You’re about to blow up,” Baran told her son. “You keep your head on straight.”
Baran said she wasn’t paying attention as much as she should have hours earlier, as the Terps embarked on their opening drive of the 34-29 victory. Then she realized what was happening.
On a jet sweep — one of interim head coach Matt Canada’s frequently used plays — Jones secured the ball from quarterback Kasim Hill and sped past defenders 28 yards down the left side of the field. His first time touching the ball in a college game led to six points.
“I was in shock,” said Baran, who sat about 10 rows up at FedEx Field. “Then at the same time, I was relieved. Got it out of the way. We’re good now. Whatever happens from this point on is a win.”
Brian Conn, who coached Jones as a senior at South Fort Myers High, watched Saturday’s victory from his Florida home. Six minutes into the first quarter, he saw Jones get wide open on a simple pass route. A pair of defenders chased Jones from a couple of strides behind but had no chance of catching the freshman.
Jones spent the last 20 yards of the 65-yard touchdown play looking at the Texas player behind him. Conn said he was hoping Jones “wouldn’t get stupid and get a penalty there.” The television commentary described Jones’s college start as “one touchdown and one hard-learned lesson,” once it seemed taunting would negate the score. But officials determined there was no unsportsmanlike foul on the play, and Jones held onto his accomplishment.
In the next quarter, Jones took another jet sweep, similar to his first touch. But this time he ran slower, dropped back a bit and looked downfield.
“He’s going to throw it!” Conn screamed at his TV about 1,000 miles away.
Jones launched the ball into the end zone, finding Taivon Jacobs for a 20-yard touchdown. The world of college football soon realized what Jones had achieved — three college touches for three touchdowns.
“My phone was going bananas,” Baran said. “I’m looking at all the stuff on social media. I could not believe it. I was like, ‘This kid just changed his whole life.’ ”
By notching a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown in one game, Jones added himself to a list that includes Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott and Kenny Hill. He was selected as one of the Big Ten’s co-freshmen of the week. But Jones didn’t realize the significance of his first three plays until after halftime when a stadium announcement mentioned the rarity of what he had done.
“I kind of got it then,” Jones said. “It was crazy. All my teammates — being able to experience that with everyone. They made it great, coming over and congratulating me. It wouldn’t be possible without them.”
And without Jones’s three touchdowns, victory wouldn’t have been possible in a game the team wanted to win for Jordan McNair, the offensive lineman who died in June after suffering heatstroke during a team workout. Jones had McNair’s No. 79 written on tape on his right wrist and his own hometown’s area code, 239, on the other.
Jones is close to his mom and said that in high school they would have “date nights” on Wednesdays at Outback Steakhouse. But she didn’t have a preference for which school he chose. She wanted him to get out of Fort Myers, even if that meant going far from home.
“I just wanted him to live someplace else, see a different culture, see a different part of the country, meet different people,” Baran said, “because Fort Myers is kind of a black hole and some kids get stuck here.”
Jones, rated as a three-star recruit by recruiting sites, chose Maryland because he liked the area and felt he could help turn around the program, Baran said. He had four different head coaches in his four seasons of high school football, experience that his mother figured might benefit her son as Maryland has waded through uncertainty in the wake of McNair’s death and placed Coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave. She worried, because her son was far from home, but once she talked to him on FaceTime, her fears evaporated.
“When you look your kid in his eyes, you can tell if he’s going through something,” Baran said. “He was good to go. He seemed confident in the situation.”
The versatility Jones showcased Saturday didn’t come as a surprise. As a senior, he led his team in rushing and receiving yards and completed 9 of 13 passes for 106 yards. In the three years before Conn coached Jones, he game-planned against him, and the coach also remembers Jones as a “hard-hitting safety.” Jones also played baseball and basketball, and his mom thinks he was a better baseball player than football player.
Of course, Jones and those around him know his debut performance won’t be repeated every Saturday.
Baran didn’t feel the magnitude of her son’s accomplishment until she turned on the hotel TV at 5 a.m. Sunday. She couldn’t sleep after the game, so she clicked to ESPN. Jones’s second touchdown replayed on the screen, and his mom heard the commentator’s reaction: “Jeshaun Jones, welcome to college football!” Finally, she broke down and cried.
Jones’s debut begs a simple question: How do you top a performance like that? The rational answer is he might not. But that doesn’t negate the promise he showed.
“The good thing about J is he’s pretty levelheaded,” Conn said. “I think he realizes what he did is not common.”