ECU’s Zay Jones set to start a new chapter in the NFL
Published 3:51 pm Friday, April 21, 2017
GREENVILLE — Former East Carolina wide receiver and soon-to-be professional Zay Jones has always been overlooked. So much so that, even now that so many eyes are on him as Thursday’s NFL Draft approaches, Jones still conducts himself as if he’s fighting for even the most minute attention as a prospect coming out of high school.
That may be what makes him so great.
“I’m so grateful for those projections, those statistics, and those things coming out about me,” Jones said after his pro day nearly a month ago. “But I didn’t have Mel Kiper and Mike Mayock in high school. No one was talking about me. One of the things that I kind of live my life on is that I never needed hype.”
He doesn’t need the hype, but with what he’s done over the last four years at ECU, he’s got it.
An NCAA record holder under the radar
Jones was ranked as a three-star recruit coming out of Stephen F. Austin High School in Texas. As a team, the Maroons didn’t accomplish much during Jones’ tenure with them.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Jones was always a player that wanted to ball in his hands. He wanted the opportunity to make plays. He completed 27 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns in his junior year as an alternate option at quarterback behind senior Michael Clawson. He caught 41 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns that season, which ranked second behind his older brother Cayleb.
Jones shouldered a lot of pressure as a senior. The Maroons graduated his brother, Clawson, and many other key cogs. They only won three games that season, but Mike Rosenthal, who was in his first year as their head coach that season, said Jones handled it well.
“He never had an issue with it. In fact, even in his sophomore and junior years — I know you’re shocked by a wide receiver wanting the ball all the time — he wanted the ball,” Rosenthal said. He was an assistant for two seasons before taking on the head-coach role. “… We let him be a natural player out there, and that’s when we started having some success.”
Schools in his home state — Texas, Baylor, Texas A&M, and the nine other Division I programs — showed little to no interest. His only offer was from Arkansas State. That was until his father, Robert Jones, who was one of the greatest Pirate football products ever, reached out to then-ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill.
In a lot of ways, Jones simply didn’t pass an eye test that dictates recruiting for so many top-tier programs not just in Texas, but also across the nation.
“He was a late bloomer,” Rosenthal said. “He came out of high school running about a 5-flat (40-yard dash) and was probably about 155 (pounds). But you knew he was going to grow. He was just a late bloomer, but in this day and age, you get ranked by your high-school size. They don’t take into account whether you’re going to grow.”
McNeill welcomed the opportunity to have Jones don the Pirates’ purple and gold. Jones committed, and before long, packed up and headed 1,389 miles from his hometown to Greenville.
With so much attention on then-junior Justin Hardy and the other stud receivers around him, many expected Jones to red shirt the 2013 season. He had other plans. He ascended the depth chart, and when the season began, took Greenville by storm with a touchdown catch in his first game as a Pirate — a 52-38 win over Old Dominion on Aug. 31, 2013.
From there, Jones put together an exceptional rookie campaign. He broke the 100-yard mark twice and had a three-game touchdown streak against Conference-USA foes.
“He loves, loves, loves football. When you put a dynamic work ethic and a passion for football together, you get a kid who is willing to do anything to succeed,” Rosenthal said. “That’s him.”
From true freshman to stellar senior
The superstar connection of Hardy and quarterback Shane Carden graduated after Jones’ sophomore season. In a lot of ways, he was handed the keys to the offense as a junior.
A slew of injuries held the Pirates back that season, but didn’t slow down Jones’ progression. He led the team, which finished 5-7 that year, with 98 catches for 1,099 yards. Even then, though, there wasn’t a ton of buzz around his name.
Fast-forward a year and Jones has been anything but overlooked. Scouts converged on press boxes home and away to get a glimpse of the standout wideout. They watched him haul in 22 passes at South Carolina. They watched him amass 206 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions at Tulsa. They watched him grab a dozen passes against Navy for 212 yards, two scores and the NCAA career receptions record once held by former teammate and current Atlanta Falcon Justin Hardy.
Seemingly by fate, the Falcons had a bye week and Hardy was at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium ready to celebrate with Jones.
Jones is on the national stage now. He was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. The football world has his eyes on him, but he kept his head down and trudged on as if he was still fighting for any and all notoriety.
After the season wrapped up, Jones dialed in on his training. The 6-foot-2, 201-pound receiver got up close and personal with scouts at the Senior Bowl, and then at the combine. Again, he impressed. At the Senior Bowl, Jones made a stretched-out falling catch in the end zone on a well-executed post route. It was ruled out of bounds, but ended up a highlight-reel grab anyways.
Jones’ athleticism was on display at the combine. He ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. His broad jump was 133 inches, and his vertical was 36.5 inches. Jones proved there he has the raw attributes to play professionally.
A few weeks later, Jones further demonstrated his abilities when ECU welcomed in scouts for its pro day on March 23. Jones dazzled as he made plays for balls thrown his way by quarterback Phillip Nelson. He showed off his intelligence in his route running.
“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous,” Jones said after his pro-day workout. “Not because it’s football, but you want to do well. You want to perform well. You’ve been thinking about this time all your life. I know it’s going to be a dream come true on draft day, whatever day that is, that I get to go and celebrate with my family, my loved ones and everyone who has supported me.”
That day is Thursday.
“It’s a grind still,” Jones said of the month between his pro day and the draft. “Here’s where you really separate yourself. Some guys are done with everything. They might wait and take off until their name is called. For me, I’m going back to work. I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’m going to treat it as if I’m a rookie, a freshman coming into college.
“That’s my mindset, that’s my goal, and I’m not satisfied.”
A permanent mindset
Jones may never be satisfied, but that’s what’s made him so great up until this point. Despite being the son of a three-time Super Bowl winner, Jones grew up with a chip on his shoulder. The culture within in the Pirate football program only amplified that.
It’s like it’s a part of his DNA.
“I’m grateful. I’m blessed. I’m glad they’re noticing my talent, but I’ve known what I can do all my life,” Jones said. “Great that I have it, but I never needed hype.”
That determination that stems from being passed over so many times along the years still prevails. Come Thursday, even when an NFL team selects Jones, he looks at it as the something else to prove more than a mission accomplished.
Jones has every last trait that it takes to be successful in the NFL. His physical prowess on the field has been well documented for years. His work ethic — which has been lauded by coaches, scouts, teammates and former professionals like Washington native Terrance Copper — will be the driving force in his continued improvement.
“Whether I’m playing with Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant or Odell Beckham, I want to learn,” he said. “I want to come in and do the best I can, whether it’s being a role player on special teams, whether it’s being the No. 3 receiver, or being the guy.
“That’s my job. That’s my focus. I’m not trying to go out here and outshine anybody. I’m just going to come with the work ethic that I have everything to prove because I really do in the end.”
Arguably his most understated characteristic, though, is his personality. Jones has been an asset to ECU and the Greenville area during his four years. Before that, he was a valued member of the Austin, Texas community.
Whichever team is lucky enough to select Jones will be drafting a consummate professional. They will welcome in a beloved teammate, a treasure off the field, and a young man that works as hard as he can to become better in everything he does.