By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Chip West, a renowned recruiter in the Tidewater area, knew all about the undersized football player who was putting up huge numbers in Chesapeake.
Before coming to UVa to coach cornerbacks, West was an assistant at Old Dominion University. When ODU hired West in 2007, the Norfolk school was in the process of putting together a team that would compete in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. The Monarchs needed players, and, even at 5-foot-8, the kid from nearby Oscar Smith High School did not escape West’s notice.
“Perry Jones is a great football player, no matter what his size is,” West said this week. “When you’re coaching FCS, I-AA ball, you hope those type of guys fall through the cracks and you’re able to recruit them.”
That nearly happened.
“I can’t even count how many college coaches came in and told me to my face that I was too small for them to offer me,” Jones recalled. “I guess I just use that as motivation. I’m glad Virginia came in and took on a chance on me. Right now I’m just trying to pay them back.”
West said: “Things happen for a reason. He’s here now, and he’s our starting tailback, and he’s doing a phenomenal job.”
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UVa lists Jones at 5-8, 185 pounds. Perry always has been smaller than most people his age, according to his older brother, Joseph Jones III. Perry is two years old than his sister, Joy, yet he “didn’t pass her in height till he was about 11,” Joseph III said.
“He’s always been undersized. The thing that sets him about from most people is his heart. You hear coaches say all the time that a guy will run through a brick wall. Well, he will literally run through a brick wall.”
Joseph III preceded Perry at Oscar Smith High and later starred at linebacker for Virginia State University. Joseph now coaches the linebackers at Oscar Smith, the school where Perry’s exploits as a two-way starter became the stuff of legend.
Perry, twice named to the All-Group AAA first team at linebacker, graduated as Oscar Smith’s all-time leader in tackles, with 343. He also holds the school record for career touchdowns, with 54. In 2008, after the Tigers won the Division 6 state championship, Perry was named The Associated Press’ Group AAA player of the year.
“It was a joy watching him play in high school,” West said.
Still, Jones’ measurables made many major-college coaches question his ability to succeed at the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“In college you see the guys that are a little bit smaller, they come in with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, and Perry did the exact same thing,” UVa defensive tackle Nick Jenkins said. “He came in with something to prove.”
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Growing up, Perry said, his inspiration was his big brother, and they remain close. “I always wanted to be like him,” he said.
When they were boys, Joseph III said, the brothers’ relationship with their father, Joseph Jones Jr., a former Marine, “was kind of strained.” Things are better now, but Joseph III said he had to take on much responsibility around the house at an early age, and he became something of a father figure to Perry.
“Growing up we weren’t in the best situation,” Joseph III said. “We grew up in public housing, the projects. We grew up with a lot of people that if we had taken the route that they took, we might not be here right now.”
Some were killed, Joseph III said, and some went to jail. Others are “still around the neighborhood doing nothing,” he said. The brothers became street smart, which meant “knowing when you had to come home and do your work, because you didn’t want to be in that situation,” Joseph III said.
Their grandmother Bernice Spellman deserves credit for helping them become mature, responsible young men, Joseph III said. “I tell people all the time, and Perry will tell you the same thing: She is the strongest person I know.”
Away from his grandmother and the rest of his family, Perry struggled initially in the classroom at UVa.
“I definitely could have done more, but the transition from high school to college was kind of hard for me,” he said. “My first semester didn’t go so well, but I started the second semester of my freshman year with a 3.0 GPA, and ever since then it’s been good.”
It’s difficult to overstate how much his coaches and teammates respect Jones. Never mind that he’s barely two years out of high school. In April, Jones was named one of the team captains, along with Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and Matt Snyder, all seniors.
“It’s a humbling experience to think that the coaches think that highly of me,” Jones said, “and my teammates as well. I’m honored that they picked me, and I’m just going to try to do my best to be a leader of this team.”
Jones is “a man of very few words,” Jenkins said. “He doesn’t speak a lot, but his actions tell you the whole story about him and his work ethic and his drive and determination, what his goal for our team is.”
When Jones enrolled in 2009, Virginia’s coach was Al Groh, the man who had ignored Jones’ lack of size and offered him a scholarship. Groh didn’t hesitate to use Jones, who appeared in 11 games as a true freshman, playing mostly on special teams.
At season’s end, UVa dismissed Groh and, not long after, hired Mike London. The new coaching staff fell for Jones, too. He started 11 games at tailback last season and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
He also caught 31 passes for 224 yards, and “from a downfield pass-receiving standpoint, I think Perry is certainly as good as a lot of wide receivers in this league,” said Mike Faragalli, who coaches the Wahoos’ running backs.
Virginia opens the season Saturday night against William and Mary at Scott Stadium, and Faragalli is expected to split reps among four tailbacks: Jones, redshirt freshmen Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd, and true freshman Clifton Richardson. There’s no question which one heads the depth chart.
“We’re looking for big things from Perry,” London said. “I think he’s a 1,000 yard-plus guy.”
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As a sophomore, Jones carried 137 times for 646 yards and one touchdown. He had a 38-yard run against William and Mary and a 42-yarder against Georgia Tech.
A year later, “I think he’s become a much more decisive runner, especially between the tackles,” Faragalli said.
“When we’re running our inside draws and zones and different schemes like that, he’s now getting 4, 5, 6 yards a pop, where last year he might have been [more likely to] stop at the line and bounce it out, or stop at the line and cut back. He’s just being much more decisive. There’s times to go for a home run, and there’s times to get 4 yards, and I think he’s really, really done great things in that regard.”
Jones said: “I watched film of my first year as a starter and then watched film from practice now, and I see a big difference. I would classify myself [in 2010] as a sort of a dancer. Last year I would get to the hole or see a defender and just try to dance around him. But now I’m taking the approach that sometimes you just gotta put your foot on the ground and get north and south.”
The coaching staff has seen other changes in Jones.
“He’s always been just a great worker and a physical player, but he’s starting to take some of the younger guys under his wing,” Faragalli said. “He’s starting to be a little bit more vocal in the huddle.
“He’s not afraid to get in somebody’s face if he doesn’t think they’re giving 100 percent. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then. So he’s just becoming a little bit more of a leader. He’s always been a team guy.”
For most of his football career, Jones has been a winner, too. Oscar Smith went 10-2 in 2006, 12-1 in ’07 and 15-0 in ’08. That’s been the hardest part of college football for him: dealing with losing. The Wahoos finished 3-9 in 2009 and 4-8 last season.
“When I first got here, it was like a reality check,” Jones said. “My first year, we lost more games in one year than I did in my entire career in high school. I had to get it in my mind that it’s not going to be as easy as it was in high school. That just gave me an extra drive to come out here, to work hard, to get better and to get my team better.”
He’s tired of losing, and that’s why he pushes himself — and other Cavaliers — so hard on the field and in the weight room.
“I don’t know how much work I’ve put in this offseason,” Jones said, “not just me myself, but in making a bigger effort to actually get my teammates better. Because that’s what it’s all going to be about: not just how good I am, but how good we are as a whole.”