Virginia running back Perry Jones is used to this by now. He's entering his final season in Charlottesville and his second as a team captain. As such, questions from members of the press aren't new. But with a former high school teammate transferring in and looking to challenge to be the starter at the biggest position in sports, you might think No. 33 would be reserved.
Turns out, on that topic and many others, Jones is as patient an interview as he has been a Cavalier.
At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, the Chesapeake native and former Oscar Smith standout is UVa's best returning rusher and receiver. After a stellar and well-rounded campaign in 2011 (915 yards rushing on 184 attempts, five TDs and 506 yards receiving on 48 catches for another three scores), he comes in as perhaps the most-versatile player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And that versatility extends beyond the football field. Normally a quiet and reserved player, Jones showed during the recent ACC Media Kickoff that he's also thoughtful, composed, and rarely uncomfortable. No matter the number of times he was asked about former Smith teammate and new UVa quarterback Phillip Sims, regardless of the ways reporters pushed him to say if he thought Sims would beat out returning starter Michael Rocco, Jones said what he wanted, how he wanted, and in the way he wanted. And no more.
For example, even though he himself (despite his ability to toss a pass) isn't involved in the competition, as a team leader Jones knows what his role will be when the team enters camp next week.
"I just think it's up to me to let the team know that we can't see it as a controversy," Jones said. "We've got to back all of our quarterbacks up because ultimately, whoever the starter is going to be is who the coaches think is best for the team. We don't know who it's going to be so we have to back all of them up so once that person is named, he already has the whole team behind him and that's going to give him a lot of confidence."
But Perry Jones is more than just a friend and former teammate of Sims. He's one of 49 players that was named to the 2012 Paul Hornung Award Watch List, the award given annually to the most-versatile player in major college football by the Louisville Sports Commission.
And the reason for that? He's coming off one of the most-successful seasons across the board that the ACC has seen in some time. He started all 13 games last year and led the team with 1,346 all-purpose yards.
As one of several talented tailbacks, Jones has found a way to be both unique and integral, as his pass-catching ability out of the backfield was a nightmare for teams last season and looks to be more of the same this fall.
A two-star recruit coming out of high school, Jones was known for his defensive prowess as much as for his offensive chops. As part of a pass-first offense then, Jones had to work on his all-around game in order to "be a complete back," something that he's proud of.
His head coach, Mike London, called him "pound-for-pound the strongest player on our team" and that's something else Jones says he takes pride in: his work ethic will never be beaten.
"When weight gets heavy, that's when a lot of guys tend to not get all of their reps or get lackadaisical," he said. "I try to move heavy weight as fast as possible, which will translate to power and speed on the field. Working heavier weight into my regimen has really helped me a lot."
The mental side of strength and conditioning, Jones explained, is as important as numbers. For example, he said he'll do squats and then go outside and run sprints. Why?
"Because you have to still be able to move fast when your legs are tired," he said, crediting Evan Marcus for getting not just him but the other players in their best possible shape.
That certainly helped last season, as the team's depth at running back led Jones to say he felt as fresh at the end of the season as he has in years, perhaps ever. That conditioning was part of why, he noted, UVa was able to become the first team to ever beat Miami and Florida State on the road in the same season.
But the Wahoos didn't end the season well, falling 38-0 to rival Virginia Tech in Scott Stadium and then to Auburn 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. So what happened against the Hokies and Tigers?
"We know that those two games don't define what type of team we are," Jones said. "We know we are a better team than those games. We pride ourselves with being able to compete with anybody on any day. It's pushing us into this season. We know we're capable of getting that job done."
Considering his offensive exploits, it's hard to think that former head coach Al Groh had originally looked at Jones on defense. Coincidentally, Jones didn't know until the even of training camp that he'd be heading to running back.
"My freshman year, I didn't know I was going to be starting out on offense until the day before camp started," he recalled. "The whole summer, I was working out as a safety. But I'm glad I got the opportunity and I don't regret anything. It was meant to be this way."
While fate certainly plays its part, the idea of goals is something that Jones is rising to meet this season. Instead of setting those for himself, he's going into 2012 with something like a blank slate.
"In the past I would set goals for myself but coming into my senior year, I just said let's not have any goals," he explained. "For me, the sky is the limit. I'm going to go as far as I can go. I don't want to put any limitations on myself."
His preparation, goals or not, hasn't slowed and he's made sure the same is happening with fellow running backs like Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson.
"Specifically, myself, I've put on a few pounds," he said. "I gained about six or seven pounds since the season ended, just working on keeping my speed up as well. Kevin's been working on his speed and he's looked good. Clifton's been working on the offense. He had a little bit of trouble with that last year but he's getting that down."
One thing Bill Lazor and the UVa offense will want to change about 2012 was the way the offense was able to produce yards but not nearly enough points in 2011. That's something Jones attributes to the little things.
"I think we had too many mental mistakes," he said. A lot of times, we put ourselves in a good situation but we'd shoot ourselves in the foot with a holding penalty or an offsides, just taking ourselves out and it was a momentum changer. That's one thing we've got to work on this season."
The running game should be stout, he added, especially considering the talent on the offensive line.
"We have two future first round draft picks in Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi," Jones said. "So we have a lot of confidence in our offensive line and we know we're going to do a lot of good things this year."
He might have the market cornered on versatility but Jones is fully aware that his role could evolve. He could end up helping out in the return game. He could play more slot than true tailback. There's a subtle difference between being willing and be ready.
"I pride myself on being able to do a number of things," he said. "Whatever the coaches need me to do, I'm more than capable of doing. I let them know that and they have a lot of trust in me.
"Whatever they ask me to do, if it's long snapping or whatever, I'm ready to do it."
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