Jones’ storybook ending within reach

Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, November 16, 2016

GREENVILLE — Zay Jones fought for relevance as a recruiting afterthought in football’s hotbed.

The Texas native had no offers from any of Texas’ 12 FBS schools, but come Saturday, he’ll be on the verge of making history for a program that, like him, fights for national recognition.

“It fueled me a lot,” Jones, who has 380 career receptions, said. “There were so many Texas schools and I didn’t get an offer from any of them, not one. So it motivated me. I think it’s very fitting that I ended up here. I’m glad things turned out the way they did.”

Eight is the magic number for Jones. Eight catches would put him past former Pirate Justin Hardy as the all-time FBS receptions leader. What’s more is that Jones has a chance to do it in his final game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Twenty-one other seniors will be honored Saturday against Navy for Senior Day but for all intents and purposes, there might as well be only one.

“It’s going to be an emotional time,” Jones said. “So I’m just embracing it, taking it all in, cherishing it with my teammates. It would mean a lot to our fans, it would mean a lot to the guys since they helped me get there, and it would especially mean a lot to me. It’s ideal that it’s done at home.”

Southern Methodist spoiled ECU’s bowl chances last Saturday, sealing a second consecutive losing season. For Jones, he said the idea of breaking the record in a losing season has been conflicting.

Head coach Scottie Montgomery sees it differently, though. When he first came to Greenville to lead the Pirates, Jones breaking the record seemed like a long shot. Hardy’s 387 career catches set the bar in 2014, and Jones came into the season needing 147 receptions to catch his former teammate.

“It’s conflicting to start with because this isn’t where we want to be,” Montgomery said. “There’s no question about it. There are a lot of things that we want to do better. In the middle of it all, I see the shining light that Zay has been in.”

With their bowl hopes dashed, Montgomery has seen the players rally around Jones. If Hardy’s record-breaking game was any indication, there will be a banner in Jones’ honor hanging on the field house — a chance for the receiver and his teammates to relish in both a remarkable season and career.

“They want him to get the record really, really badly to the point where if there are some routes that are changing in games or this is leaning this way, we’ve heard many guys come up and say, ‘we think if we put him in the slot here, we can get double coverage off of him’,” Montgomery said. “That’s just a testament to who they are in that room and the way it’s being coached.”

Zay Jones readies to fire a touchdown pass to Philip Nelson. (Chris Rawls/WDN)

Zay Jones readies to fire a touchdown pass to Philip Nelson. (Chris Rawls/WDN)

Jones breaking the record back before the season started seemed unlikely. But now, with just eight catches to go and two games to do it, it looks like a certainty. The Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, a trophy recognizing the nation’s best receiver, has caught fewer than eight passes just once this season.

“It would be great not only for me, but for this program, to bring more national attention to it,” Jones said. “Our guys deserve it, so I’m just doing my best to make it to the highest platform possible to provide for this city and for the school.”

What’s perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Jones’ near-achievement is that he spent two years behind the man whose record he’s chasing. Hardy will be there Saturday to potentially watch his record fall while Jones gets his banner raised.

“Justin was his own man,” Jones said. “He did something very special here. He paved a great way for not only me, but for all the great receivers that come after him. The tremendous things that he’s done for this program, and now to see him play in the National Football League, is just phenomenal and something that we can all embrace.”

The Senior Day countdown is on and sending Jones off, record in hand, would be a fitting finish to an improbable career.