Butch Jones on practice five and the first scrimmage
Marlon Walls on the Vols' fifth practice of spring
Evan Woodbery on the Vols' fifth practice of spring
Riyahd Jones never expected his two-year odyssey from high school to the SEC would end at Tennessee. In early December, the Vols weren’t even on his radar screen. Days later, he was making plans to enroll immediately.
Two years of enduring the bumpy life of a recruit on the SEC margins had taught Jones to take nothing for granted.
When Tennessee offered, he said yes. Formalities like campus visits could wait. His dream was within reach, and he wasn’t going to let it slip away.
“I’ve been working for this my whole life,” Jones said. “It worked out. And it’s a blessing.”
How it worked out is a long story, and it’s one that Jones doesn’t mind telling. The tale is a triumph of Jones’ persistent and perhaps stubborn belief that he was good enough to play with the big boys.
A prospect at Carver High School in Columbus, Ga., Jones was committed to Kentucky for seven months, he said, but his scholarship offer was yanked late in the game and the remaining options were less than enticing.
He had a handful of Division I offers in the MAC, but preferred to stay in the South, even at a Championship Subdivision school.
“I didn’t want to go way up north to UMass or Ball State,” he said. “So I went to Georgia Southern.”
Jones started as a true freshman, but yearned for more.
“I just felt like I could do better,” he said. “I’ve been working hard playing football my entire life, pushing myself, and I felt like I could do better.”
He went to Garden City Community College in Kansas, intent on improving his stock for one season and then reopening his recruitment as a junior college player.
But as he packed up his belongings to leave the school last winter, his final college destination was still uncertain.
Initially, Auburn seemed like the best hope of reaching his SEC goal.
Jones’ hometown was just across the state line from Auburn, and he had developed a good relationship with assistants Willie Martinez and Tommy Thigpen. The Tigers were recruiting him, and Jones was hopeful.
Then Auburn’s season went down the tubes, the entire coaching staff was fired and Jones began feeling a sense of déjà vu.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.
This time the college football gods that had been so cruel two years earlier worked in Jones’ favor. Martinez landed a job at Tennessee under longtime colleague Butch Jones. Thigpen joined, too.
Tennessee needed help in the secondary, and Martinez knew where to find it.
“He called me a week after he got hired to let me know that he wanted me to play here,” Jones said. “It’s been a long journey, being dropped by schools, picked back up by other schools. It’s been a long two years. Without Coach Martinez, I wouldn’t be here.”
Jones will have a chance to compete for a starting job at cornerback, and he’s already drawn praise from coaches and moved — at least temporarily — into a first-team spot.
He’s also drawn attention for his charismatic personality. On Twitter, he became known for providing an afternoon news report to his followers. Some of the news was real, some was made up and some was a bit of both.
Jones also was chosen to narrate a UT video describing how players are fitted for pads.
“That’s just my personality off the field,” he said. “They call me the joker at home. I’m only serious when it’s time to be serious. In class, I’m serious. On the field, I’m serious. Off the field or on Twitter, I’m a goofball. That’s how it is.”
When Jones turns to his serious side, however, he displays the type of confidence befitting of a cornerback who is constantly under the gun.
“When it comes to one-on-ones, I take it seriously,” he said. “I take it personally when a receiver catches the ball ... When the pads come on, that’s when y’all are going to see the beast. I’m just getting started.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.