Seven months ago, Ronald Jones would have sooner seen himself exploring the surface of the Moon than returning punts for the Pitt football team.
But that latter thing just might happen after Jones found a strange area code on his cell phone in January, wondered whether or not he should return the call and now is happy he did.
Pitt coach Todd Graham is pleased, too.
“In camp, he is the one (freshman) who has stuck out to me the most as far as being able to be an instant contributor from a big-play standpoint,” Graham said.
In a camp that has several freshmen drawing raves from coaches, Jones has been a standout.
And almost no college of note had an interest in him after he threw for 1,698 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for 624 and 10 at Fort Meade (Fla.) High School last season.
“I was sitting in class (in January) and I had a phone call from the 412 area code,” Jones said. “I was with my coach (Jemalle Cornelius) at the time and I said, `Coach, you know the 412 area code? I missed the call.’
“He looked it up on Internet and it was Pittsburgh. He said, `It might be a coach. Call him back.’
Jones called and the caller turned out to be Pitt secondary coach Tony Gibson, playing catch-up in recruiting after the school fired two head coaches in a month.
“He said, `Hey, Ron, I know we are kind of late and all, but we really like your film. You are really explosive. We want to get you up here on a visit.’ ”
Jones hung up, unsure of his next move.
“Should I do it, coach?” he asked
“Book it,” Cornelius said.
After a visit to Pittsburgh, Jones said he “fell in love with the facilities, coaches and everything.”
Of course, he didn’t have many alternatives. At the time, only Georgia Southern (his first choice), Marshall and The Citadel had offered scholarships. Even Graham admits that Jones needs to polish his route-running because he spent his last two years of high school as a quarterback.
Still, the missed-called feature on Jones’ cell phone appears to have worked in Pitt’s favor.
At least for now.
— It will be interesting to see what coaches are saying about freshmen such as Jones, running backs Corey Davis, Malcolm Crockett and Isaac Bennett, linebackers Ejuan Price and LaQuentin Smith and cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts and Lloyd Carrington when the guy on the other side of the line has mayhem on his mind.
Scrimmages and practices against your pals or roommates aren’t the best indicators.
— Jones, who claims to have run a 4.43 40, said he isn’t one of those Florida kids who developed speed by chasing rabbits out of flaming sugar cane fields.
“That’s way down south (Florida),” he said. “I’m in the central part of Florida.”
But he said he did chase chickens, not unlike Rocky Balboa while training for a title fight.
“I caught two,” he said.
— Jones graduated from the same high school as the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, whose father Lorenzo coached Jones in baseball and football and was his youth pastor at Peaceful Believers’ Church.
“I am real close with him,” Jones said of the elder McCutchen. “I go to his church sometimes and he preaches to us. I have talked to him about five times since I’ve been up here.”
Jones said he hasn’t called Andrew since he has been in town.
“But once the baseball season is over, I’m going to hit him up.”
— Graham said Jones reminds him of Tulsa’s Damaris Johnson, the NCAA all-time leader in all-purpose (7,796) and kickoff return (3,417) yards.
“Ronald’s got a ways to go to be as good a route runner, but, man, when he gets the ball, he knows what to do with it.”
— Graham said he was impressed by Jones’ punt return in the scrimmage Saturday.
“I would like to say I thought he could do that,” Graham said. “I said, `Wow, that’s impressive.’ He kind of shocked me.”
Said Jones: “I had one guy to beat and I made him miss. When I made him miss, there was daylight and I used my speed to get past everybody.”
Jones is challenging redshirt junior Cameron Saddler for the No. 1 punt-return job. It’s almost not a fair fight – Saddler has missed much of training camp with an injury.
— Redshirt freshman Anthony Gonzalez spends most of his time with receivers, but he also runs the scout team as a quarterback to help the defense.
“He’s being a team guy,” Graham said of Gonzalez’s move to H-back. “He is still a quarterback. It is definitely not a deal where the door has been closed to him competing at quarterback in the future.”
— The perception is that junior wide receiver Mike Shanahan, a big 6-5, 225-pound target, has better speed than people think.
But even Graham said that’s not true.
“He is deceptive in how quick he can get deep, but he is not a blazer.
“He is fast enough. He is a 6-5 guy, you can just post him up and he has great ball skills. He is one of our best deep threats. He is a long strider so he is eating up a lot of grass.”
Coaches are figuring on Shanahan catching a lot of footballs this season.
“He is very key to what we are doing,” Graham said. “He is going to have a lot of big plays in our offense.”
— There was an interesting two-play sequence Tuesday involving junior wide receiver Mike Shanahan:
First, Shanahan couldn’t hang onto a pass across the middle while cornerback K’Waun Williams was shadowing him. It was an outstanding play by Williams, but wide receivers coach Mike Norvell let Shanahan hear about it.
On the next play, Shanahan caught a long scoring pass over his shoulder from Tino Sunseri by outhustling Williams for the ball.
The other day, Graham pointed at Shanahan as one of the team’s leaders. Coming back to make a great play after a poor one is what leaders do.
— The continued absences of wide receivers Devin Street and Saddler are no worry now – Pitt should be fine with almost anyone at wide receiver against Buffalo and Maine.
Beyond those games, though, Pitt needs its best players to contend for all those championships on Todd Graham’s to-do list.