By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Training camp opened at UVa last month with Keith Payne, Dominique Wallace, Torrey Mack, Raynard Horne, Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd in pursuit of Perry Jones, who had emerged from spring practice as the team’s No. 1 tailback.
Horne may have pulled even, but that speaks more to how well he played in August than to anything Jones failed to do. The other tailbacks weren’t listed on the depth chart that UVa released Monday for its season-opener against Richmond at Scott Stadium.
The teams meet Saturday at 6 p.m.
At 5-8, 185 pounds, Jones is one of the smaller players on Virginia’s football team. He’s quick and runs well but doesn’t have sprinter’s speed. So why, as he enters his sophomore season, is he expected to play such a prominent role as a tailback and kick-returner for Mike London’s first team at UVa?
“The first thing about Perry is that he really does everything right,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Wednesday afternoon. “What he’s proven to us is that it’s not only how he carries out his assignments on the field, but the kind of person that Perry is. He’s very reliable, dependable. He really exemplifies what Coach London is trying to build here as a program.
“Then when you put that together with his explosiveness, his vision and his ability to make plays in space, he’s been steady and constantly rising, so we’re really excited about what Perry can do.”
Those who saw Jones star for Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake — he was The Associated Press’ state Group AAA player of the year in 2008 — already know what he can do on a football field.
He finished his high school career with 343 tackles, a school record. As a senior, he rushed for 30 touchdowns, another school record. Oscar Smith finished the 2008 season with a 15-0 record, and in five playoff games, Jones ran for 949 yards and 10 TDs.
“I remember seeing Perry’s tape, his highlight tape, and he was playing safety, linebacker, running the ball,” London said. “He was all over the place, a very dynamic video.”
Jones has yet to fully display his skills as runner for the Wahoos. He was in for a total of 205 plays as a true freshman last year, but 180 were on special teams. He finished the season with 9 carries for 9 yards and 1 reception for 38 yards.
His freshman-year performance didn’t make him the front-runner to win the starting tailback’s job in 2010. But with Wallace recovering from a foot injury, and Parks and Shepherd still in high school, Jones got much of the work in spring practice, and he made the most of his opportunity.
“Perry Jones has done an outstanding job in just every aspect,” London said early in training camp last month. “Perry is pound for pound probably our strongest player on the team, and that’s an accomplishment, because of the kid’s tremendous work ethic in the weight room and then in the classroom, and I know for sure it’s going to transfer onto the field.
“Despite the fact that he’s height-challenged or whatever, he’s got the heart of a giant, and he does everything the way you want to do it.”
Jones did not, however, make a seamless transition to college. A good student in high school, he found it difficult at first to keep pace academically at UVa.
“Things were just coming so fast, and I didn’t prepare myself,” Jones said. “I struggled first semester, but once I got the hang of things, I didn’t want to have the possibility of the school deciding to suspend me for a year, so I just changed my whole [approach]. I worked a lot harder in the classroom and I did much better second semester.”
London said: “During the spring and over the summer, he ended up getting over a 3.0 GPA. He just turned it around in all aspects, and academically he’s doing an outstanding job.
“Football-wise, he’s always had a strong work ethic. Comes from a great high school down there in the Tidewater area, and he’s just a great young man. Doesn’t say boo. He just goes to work, so we’re glad to have him.”
When Jones arrived at UVa last year, then-coach Al Groh let him choose at which position to begin. Jones went with offense. It’s not a decision he regrets, but Jones misses the punishing hits he delivered as an Oscar Smith linebacker. He made 11 tackles on special teams in 2009, but so far this season he’s working only with the punt-return and kickoff-return units.
“Yeah, I think about it all the time,” Jones said, laughing. “I joke with the coaches sometimes like, ‘I still think that this is just like high school football, so if you need me to play defense at any time, I’m always ready.’ I definitely miss that part of the game.”
Their competition this summer made all the tailbacks better, Jones said. At UVa, they come in all shapes and sizes, from the 6-3, 255-pound Payne — who’s bigger than most linebackers in the program — to Jones, Parks and Shepherd, all listed at 5-8.
His lack of bulk notwithstanding, Jones considers himself a solid pass-blocker. “A linebacker blitzing may see my size and try to just run me over,” he said, “but it’s not going to happen.”
Virginia’s starting offensive linemen include 6-7 Landon Bradley, 6-7 Austin Pasztor, 6-6 Oday Aboushi and 6-6 B.J. Cabbell. Jones is not always easy to locate on running plays.
“Sometimes after practice, the defensive players, they come around joking with me, saying, ‘We couldn’t even see you behind the line,’ and then they say I just burst out of nowhere,” Jones said.
“Me being so small and then the linemen being so big, I guess that can have its advantages at times.”
At 6-0, 210 pounds, Horne is considerably larger than Jones, who’s a big fan of No. 44. This is Horne’s fifth year at UVa, but the first in which he figures to be a vital part of the offense. He was a wide receiver in Virginia’s short-lived spread offense last year but played primarily on special teams.
“He’s great,” Jones said. “I’m kind of surprised he didn’t get any playing time earlier, because looking at him now, I’m just like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want this guy on the field?’ He has tremendous speed and he’s big and powerful. I think we’ll complement each other well.”