One year ago this Thursday, the course of Northwestern's 2014 season changed drastically. In one afternoon, Northwestern would lose both of their top offensive playmakers. The program announced Venric Mark - then a preseason All-Big Ten running back - was transferring seemingly out of the blue, and Christian Jones -- Trevor Siemian's number one receiver and probably the most NFL-ready player on the roster -- tore his ACL in practice. Of course, Mark's departure made room for Justin Jackson's emergence as a premiere starting tailback, but the receiving corps never truly recovered from Jones' absence.
Now one year and two knee surgeries later, all eyes are on Christian Jones again. Can his knee withstand the load of his 6-foot-3, 230 pound frame coupled with the even heavier load of revitalizing a struggling offense?
"I'm excited to see what will happen," says Jones. He isn't the only one.
"He's a difference maker," says Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He's a mismatch size-wise. He's a mismatch from a standpoint of experience. And it's going to be great to get him back out there. It's an important piece of the puzzle."
The last time Christian Jones played he torched the Fighting Illini with 13 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns to close out the 2013 season. That was while the receiving corps included Rashad Lawrence, Kyle Prater and Tony Jones -- all of whom are practicing with NFL teams right now. Christian Jones is no longer one guy in a deep stable of capable pass-catchers. He's the guy.
Just a couple weeks ago, the guy started jogging for the first time in four months, and now the season opener is less than four weeks away. "Luckily we've got three weeks of camp and then another week after that," Jones says. "So that gives me a very large buffer to get back to where I was and where I need to be."
The Houston native is not new to knee injuries. In high school he tore the ACL in his right knee during a spring practice, which kept him sidelined for most of his senior year. Jones says that going through the recovery process in high school made this most recent injury "a little easier."
"I have big anxiety issues with injuries," Jones admits.
"He was really down when he first got hurt in high school," says Donnelle Jones, Christian's father. Donnelle suffered temporary paralysis due to an injury sustained during his own high school football career. "You've got to deal with the adversity in your own way," he told his son following the bad news last year.
Christian faced even more adversity this past spring when he re-aggravated the almost-healed left knee, necessitating another surgery and another six weeks on crutches.
"I was pretty pissed," he recalls. "I was pretty pissed, because I thought it was over. You think it's over, you think you're done and I get hurt rehabbing getting back. It was just annoying. I felt like I had so many strides forward, and then I had to restart.
"It was a very trying time. I had to take some time just to get myself back."
Over the past year, the former ESPN four-star recruit's days have consisted of endless hours of rehab, almost as many hours of FIFA 15 on Xbox, and frequent conversations with his parents and former teammates Jeremy Ebert and Rashad Lawrence.
"[Ebert] is best receiver I've ever seen here, so he's always keeping me focused and telling me how to get better," Jones explains as he describes his support system. "And I roomed with Rashad for three years, so I'd like to think we're good friends," he says with a laugh.
Jones stresses that although Ebert and Lawrence have been his go-to guys, the whole team has been supportive throughout the recovery process. "I got tons of text messages and calls from the guys when I first got hurt, and they've had my back through everything."
Despite his obvious individual potential, the NFL prospect always puts the team first.
"I can't call myself a playmaker because I haven't played in a long time, but anything I can do to help this team to win games, I'll do it," he says. "If I have to go back to blocking like I did when we won the Gator Bowl I'll do it. As long as we're winning games I'm happy doing whatever."
As far as what Jones' can do to infuse some life back into a Northwestern offense that has lacked in big plays, the receiver doesn't know what to say.
"Don't make me answer this," the humble receiver says after what feels like hours of begging him to describe what he brings to the offense as an individual player at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
Eventually, teammate Nick VanHoose offers his own analysis to break the silence.
"It's his combination of physicality and route running," VanHoose yells from another table. "He has to run good routes because the kid ain't fast." The table erupts in laughter.
Defensive backs on opposing defenses, however, would likely disagree with the fellow veteran's friendly jab at Jones. If we know one thing, it's that Jones can make those big plays downfield.
Jones says he is not thinking about the prospect of playing on Sundays just yet, nor does he seem worried about shedding the injury-prone label that comes with sitting out a season. His only concern is "putting Northwestern back on the map" with a statement win against Stanford week one.
"I think if anything, I have something to prove to myself--that I still can play."
The fifth-year senior must reemerge as a dominant receiver in order for the offense to thrive under a new starting quarterback this season. And Donnelle Jones knows his son is prepared to take on the challenge.
"Christian has grown a lot as a person. He's learned how to deal with adversity," he says. "He's a natural leader and that's something I'll always admire about him."