CHARLOTTESVILLE – Just watch the tape.
That’s what Oscar Smith High School Coach Rich Morgan would say whenever a college recruiter walked into his office four years ago wondering about a hard-hitting linebacker named Perry Jones. Nobody in the state of Virginia has better game film, he would insist.
Most, though, weren’t interested in a 5-foot-8 prospect who had yet to rush for more than 1,800 yards and 30 touchdowns, as he did playing running back for the first time as a high school senior. Jones projected as a safety at the college level, and even Virginia’s coaching staff had came through the Chesapeake, Va., school a few times before offering Jones a scholarship in the spring prior to his senior season.
To this day, Morgan still calls it one of the more “frustrating” experiences of his coaching career. The preconceived notions “just weren’t right,” he said. “They misjudged Perry’s talent.”
Few realized then that Jones would enter the 2012 season as the face of a Cavaliers football program coming off a resurgent 8-5 campaign, the most important cog if Virginia is to continue its progress and make back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2004 and 2005. One of the last holdovers from the Al Groh era, Jones has morphed from an undersized afterthought into perhaps the ACC’s most versatile weapon.
“If he was 6-foot, 210 pounds at that time, he’d have the whole world recruiting him,” said Mike Faragalli, Virginia’s running backs coach. “They don’t call him Superman for nothing. The guy can do it all.”
Last season, Jones rushed for 915 yards, caught 48 passes for 506 yards, scored eight touchdowns and even connected on his one pass of the year — a 37-yard touchdown throw in a win over Miami. “Seven-forty quarterback rating,” Jones noted with a smile last month.
Coach Mike London calls Jones the strongest player, pound for pound, on the roster, and teammates marvel at how his diminutive stature doesn’t stop him from playing the game with an aggression of the linebacker he once was. It’s as if he’s paying homage to the Man of Steel shirt he often wears underneath his pads during practices and games. Right tackle Morgan Moses said: “He’s like a God out there.”
London said the 195-pound Jones can be so eager for contact, he’ll jump into mundane punt return drills just for the fun of it until the coach forces him to the sideline.
“He imposes his will on people when he runs the ball,” left tackle Oday Aboushi said. “I look back there and see him in the backfield, it makes me want to take off running right behind him.”
That the Cavaliers take their cues from Jones is an important distinction now that London is in his third year at the helm in Charlottesville.
Virginia’s training camp has been defined by a three-way competition at quarterback and several other position battles that were inevitable given London’s early success on the recruiting trail. He promised recruits the chance to compete for playing time right away, and so far he has kept his word.
Jones is acutely aware of this. If not for the presence of then-freshmen Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson last year, he would have likely become the first Virginia player since Alvin Pearman in 2004 to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Parks rushed for 709 yards and Richardson chipped in 366.
But sharing snaps has never been an issue, to the point that Faragalli didn’t need to be on the field last year to direct the running back rotation. Jones and Parks even removed and inserted themselves into games naturally.
It worked largely because “when Perry talks, we listen,” Parks said.
Though Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor hopes to produce more big plays through the air this year, the tailbacks will continue to be the focal point of an offense that must compensate for a defense that is breaking in three new starters in the secondary.
“We would all love to get 30 carries and have 200 yards,” Jones said. “But the coaches, they’re getting paid for a reason because they know that our rotation — the running back by committee — gives us the best chance to win a football game. We don’t dwell on it. We don’t sulk in our misery. We just back each other.”
Looking back now, any frustration Morgan had with the process that brought Jones to Virginia dissipates as he talks about what his former player has accomplished on the field.
He’s now coaching Jones’s younger brother Zack, a wide receiver who will follow in Perry’s footsteps at Virginia next year. Morgan, who won a Virginia AAA state championship with Perry Jones in 2008 and another last season, is often asked to compare the two.
His answer is the same every time: Just watch the tape.
“It would be unfair for me to compare anybody to Perry Jones. The bar is way too high,” he said. “It’s kind of like there’s Perry Jones and we talk about others after that. He’s at the top of what a football player is supposed to be and I’ve never met anybody that has surpassed him ever.”