EVANSTON, Ill. — Tony Jones was always known as a speed-demon. Speed, he says, is his greatest strength. But he also said in training camp that in order to take the next step as a receiver, focusing on the little things would be key to his and the team’s progression. Becoming a possession receiver became a top priority.
Coming off a five-reception, 70-yard game that included a touchdown catch in Northwestern’s win over Cal in week one, Jones showed evidence of his maturation. But after following up that performance with a career-high nine-reception, 185-yard performance Jones says his goal is coming along quite nicely.
“With nine receptions, I guess [becoming a possession receiver is] coming along pretty well. Just trying to be a reliable receiver for this offense to just continue to make plays and continue to help this team win,” Jones said after Northwestern’s 48-27 win over Syracuse on Saturday night.
It was clear, especially against Syracuse, that offensive coordinator Mick McCall and the rest of the offensive staff made it a priority to throw the ball deeper down the field and stretch the defense.
“It feels good to know I have got the trust from the quarterbacks and coaches to be a guy that they look to go make big plays for us,” Jones said.
Jones has taken that opportunity and ran with it, becoming a go-to guy for both of his quarterbacks.
“That’s back-to-back weeks where Tony has played at an elite level, at an All-Big-Ten level,” Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We have got to continue to find ways and be creative to get him the football, to move him around so people can’t kind of say, ‘Hey, there he is at X [receiver position],’ and do some things to make people account for Tony. He’s a big time player here. He was a big time player in high school. He’s battled through some injuries and his opportunity is right here in front of him.”
Without the presence of running back Venric Mark, who missed the home opener after playing sparingly against Cal, the offense has leaned more on the passing game, especially with dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter being injured last week. That has given Jones and quarterback Trevor Siemian time to showcase the progress they’ve both made.
Last week, Siemian hit Jones on a 19-yard touchdown and on Saturday he again hit Jones for a 47-yard score. On tonight’s touchdown, though, Jones didn’t have to rely completely on his speed, but more on his knowledge of the game and rapport with his quarterback.
“If you look at the tape again, you see that the corner had come in on a blitz and the safety rode over. I knew I was one-on-one with the safety and that Trevor would definitely be looking that way,” Jones, a junior, said. “It was just the way that the safety came down. He was flat-footed. I was just like, ‘I really can’t run this corner [route] right here. Let’s just go deep,’ and luckily, Trevor was on the same page as me and when I went by [the safety], he threw it up top for me and we made the play.”
Everyone, Siemian included, knew the skills Jones possessed, but it was putting all of them together and avoiding injury that has taken Jones a longer time to come into his own.
“I think he’s obviously matured,” Siemian said. “He’s been around for a while. The guy could do it all from the moment he stepped in the door. But he’s maturing, he’s getting cleaner with his routes, he’s leading the younger guys and he’s pretty easy to throw to.”
Jones, though, is adamant that this change didn’t come during a specific practice or because of a physical adjustment; it’s his mentality that has seen the most growth.
“I feel like, mentally, I was going to a different place as far as being more locked in and mentally focused [this spring],” Jones said. “I think that’s definitely paid dividends as far as catching the ball a lot better. Definitely just the focus and going out there and focusing on catching the ball.”
Although Jones has broken out over the past two weeks, both quarterbacks expect him to keep up the momentum they have started. He’s too talented, Siemian says, for there to be a significant drop off in his performance.
“The guy can play. He can run. Obviously he’s a mismatch a lot of times. He’s really starting to grow into his own and mature and read defenses and create separation. The guy can play. He’s a stud.”