According to University of South Alabama running back Jay Jones, spring practice is the foundation for the regular season.
“So I’m taking every day seriously,” Jones told MemphiSport during a recent telephone interview from Mobile, Ala. “I have a new running backs coach who is a great guy and is trying to help me develop my game more and more each day.”
To get a clear understanding of why Jones is so enthused about spring practice, look no further than contributions he made during his first full season for the Jaguars. For starters, the former Horn Lake High standout was among the team’s most efficient rushers during a year in which he appeared in each of USA’s 12 games.
In addition, he brought with him to Mobile the same competitive drive that enabled him to help propel nationally-ranked Northwest Mississippi Community College to a 9-1 mark his sophomore campaign. That year, 5-foot-9, 190-pound speedy back emerged as the nation’s 11th best rusher and was 21st nationally in scoring.
“I was at my best then,” Jones said of his second season of collegiate football. “I felt like nothing could go wrong.”
Things were seemingly holding up nicely for Jones during a sophomore year in which his display accumulated interest from a slew of major Division 1 colleges. Ole Miss, Mississippi, and Kentucky was among the schools vying for Jones’ services after a year in which he led NWCC to the MACJC North Half title.
Weeks later, however, one incident nearly cost him a chance to continue his college career.
Following a NWCC basketball game in Senatobia, Miss., Jones was among several individuals who were involved in an on-campus fight, an occurrence that forced school administrators to suspend him indefinitely from the college. For the 21-year-old Jones, such a turn of events left him pondering his next move, particularly with regards to playing college football.
Consequently, he missed school for an entire academic year, a seemingly discouraging hiatus that brought about a sense of hopelessness and self-doubt for a quality football player who admittedly was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I was so lost I really didn’t know where to go or what to do,” Jones said. “People that praised me before would barely speak. Friends that were my biggest supporters never called anymore. The only people who were there was my parents and my granddad, my girlfriend, Charda, and my (former high school coach) John Cooley.”
A year removed from his expulsion from NWCC, Jones choose to enroll at nearby Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville, Miss. to complete the requirements for his associate degree.
After learning that Jerry Mack — a former Central Arkansas University assistant who recruited Jones during his days at Horn Lake — would be an assistant at South Alabama, Jones made an unofficial visit to Mobile. It wasn’t long after the visit with his family that USA offered Jones a scholarship to finish out his eligibility.
Fortunately for him, he was back in business, with the on-campus melee of two years ago a distant memory.
“South (Alabama) kept my scholarship on the table when a lot of other Division 1 schools had backed off,” Jones explained. “That shows the kind of person coach (South Alabama head coach Joey) Jones is. And that is how I got here at South Alabama.”
To his credit, Jones picked up where he left off after a productive sophomore season.
He was the Jaguars’ leading rusher, having amassed 763 yards on 143 carries and scored five touchdowns. USA, after starting the season with a 3-6 mark, finished the year strong with a three-game winning streak to become bowl eligible.
Credit Jones, the resilient kid who never gave up on his collegiate football career even it seemed he wouldn’t get a second chance.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned as a newcomer at South (Alabama) is junior college prepared me for the Division 1 grind,” Jones said. Division 1 ball isn’t easy at all, but junior college prepares you for all of that. If you’ve phase it through junior college ball, you can make it through anything.”
Especially spring practice.