- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Kevin Jones glided right, shifted outside and burst around the right corner. The tailback had a clear path down the sideline before the whistle blew at a Virginia Tech practice.

The breakaway move was hardly news. What happened after the play was.

Jones didn’t break stride on his way back to the huddle, delivering only a one-sentence verbal jab to the cornerback he just beat. That he said so little said plenty.

There was a time Jones made a lot of noise. A modest gain resulted in a boisterous, in-your-face taunt, and his arrogance infuriated defenders and incensed coaches.

“I always told him that you don’t have to ice down your ankles or your knees or anything else after practice; you have to ice down your mouth,” running backs coach Billy Hite said. “He was just feeling too good about himself.”

Jones must have gotten the message. The King of Smack has relinquished his throne, making a different type of noise these days as a preseason All-American for the ninth-ranked Hokies. The 6-foot-2, 222-pound junior has more muscle and a better mindset as a contender for the Heisman Trophy playing on a team eyeing a national championship.

“I would get excited about every play over 5 yards,” said Jones, a Pennsylvania high school legend who finished with 5,878 yards and 84 touchdowns in his prep career. “I just get hyped. I do make a conscious effort not to get into people’s faces, because it gets you penalties. I am still going to be animated — just not taunting. I am a little more mature.”

The Hokies’ most exciting player since Michael Vick is primed to be the featured weapon. Jones, who was brash enough to wear Vick’s No.7 jersey his first two seasons before switching to No.25 this season, has gained 15 pounds of muscle, adding more strength to his thighs and arms to complement his 4.3 speed.

Though he has quieted on the field, his expectations remain louder than a Metallica concert.

“Two-thousand yards, Big East championship, national championship, Heisman, perfect season,” said Jones, a Playboy preseason All-American. “It’s my time to be a leader.”

The Heisman talk may not be premature. While Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning is the early favorite because Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett likely will be suspended for half the season, Jones is in the second tier along with N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers, Kansas State quarterback Ell Roberson and Texas receiver Roy Williams.

Jones, a mix of ankle-breaking moves and punishing power, waited not-so-patiently for two years as Lee Suggs’ understudy before assuming his role as the Hokies’ main man.

“He’s probably as fast as Michael [Vick] but is more powerful when he puts his head down,” said senior center Jake Grove, who played alongside the Atlanta Falcons quarterback for two seasons. “He’s a lot like Lee Suggs but may be a little shiftier. … He got humbled a little bit last year by having to sit behind Lee. I think that was good for him.”

Not that Jones hasn’t been productive. He was the Big East rookie of the year as a freshman while rushing for 957 yards, then ran for 871 last year despite being slowed by a hamstring pull. The new muscle and maturity have him ready to go from a support role to the leading man.

“It’s his turn,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “He has worked mentally to get ready for this fall. He’s not sharing the backfield with anybody.”

Jones served notice of his Vick-like tendencies last season. He had a 58-yard jaunt against Rutgers that included several stops in which he reversed field and left defenders dumbfounded. He electrified the Lane Stadium crowd, which rose in awe of the feat.

“I guess it kind of reminded the fans of Michael Vick, and fans go crazy over that,” said Jones, who switched jersey numbers this season to limit comparisons to Vick. “Especially when I wore No.7, I kind of felt like him at points because I made something out of nothing.”

Of course, his most famous cutback came at the news conference in which he announced his college decision. Not surprisingly, Penn State was in hot pursuit. Joe Paterno had visited the Jones’ house near Philadelphia, and few Pennsylvanians turn down JoePa once he is in their living room.

Jones had become a household name among recruiting insiders and college fans who regularly monitor the Internet. He was considered the top recruit nationally by several services, and his choice was highly anticipated, especially in the football-crazed Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

He walked to the podium carrying a Nittany Lions jersey.

“I said, ‘I will not be attending Penn State,’ and kindly put that jersey down,” said Jones, who tore off his sweater to reveal a Hokies jersey. “I said, ‘I will be attending Virginia Tech.’ Everybody said, ‘He had a Penn State jersey. He threw it on the ground and spit on it.’ … It was nothing like that.”

Many were not amused by the show. In those parts, Penn State football is a religion, and Nittany Lions fans made him the object of scorn. How dare he be so disrespectful? He received hate mail, including some with racial slurs, and became the subject of ridicule on message boards. Jones said he wasn’t fazed by the responses, though he was surprised by the backlash. However, it only seemed to add attention to his unprecedented hype.

“He was a little cocky kid,” Grove said. “I am really impressed with how he’s grown up.”

That was evident at practice last week.

“A couple of defensive guys asked me coming off of the field, ‘Did you stick a pacifier in his mouth?’” Hite said. “‘Is he sucking instead of talking?’ Those guys like it when he talks back to them. It motivates them. … He got it at some point.”

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