Several factors prove helpful in Hokies landing Jones
The Roth Report
February 14, 2001
By Bill Roth

As hard as this might be to believe, the nation's top-ranked high school football player just showed up unannounced in Virginia Tech's football office last spring. And less than a year later, Kevin Jones stunned the nation and his home state school when he signed with Tech.

Amazing? You bet.

But that's exactly what happened to Tech assistant coach Lorenzo, "Whammy" Ward and the Hokies in the exciting recruiting saga of Jones.

It was last spring when Kevin Jones, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound running back from Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Pa., first visited the campus of Virginia Tech. His father, Tom, had learned of Tech's marvelous Mondo track surface inside Rector Field House and entered his son in the Super 8 indoor meet for high school track athletes.

"Kevin actually was hurt - he had pulled a hamstring - but we came down anyway," Tom Jones recalled.

Jones didn't run at the meet because of his injury, but he did manage to pay a visit to Tech's football office across the street where he met Ward.

"I think I was the only coach in the building to be honest," Ward said. "Kevin showed up at Lisa Marie's [secretary] desk asking to talk with a coach and I was the only guy there."

Hard to conceive that the nation's top-ranked high school football player just 'shows up' unannounced in your office, but that's what happened to Ward

"We had a nice visit that day and I told Tom to send me a tape as soon as he got home," Ward said. "He sent it down and I showed it to Coach Beamer."

Beamer's response? "Recruit him hard, Whammy," he said.

It was an interesting and eventually wise decision on Beamer's part to let Ward handle the recruiting of Kevin Jones. First, eastern Pennsylvania is not Ward's recruiting area. Tech line coach Danny Pearman usually handles that area for Tech. Second, Billy Hite, and not Ward, is Tech's running backs coach. And third, just one year earlier, Ward had lost out in the recruiting battle of Virginia's top high school prospect, Fairfax High School's Brandon Royster.

But when it came to recruiting Kevin Jones, Beamer put Ward on the job without hesitation.

"He had a hunch, a gut feeling," Ward said about Beamer's decision. "I had met Kevin and his dad and so Coach let me run with it. I had come in late on the recruitment of Royster, and was a little bit behind since it was my first year here [at Virginia Tech]. But Coach is comfortable in my ability to recruit. And he just has a feel for this kind of thing and wanted me to recruit Kevin."

Last summer, on his way back home to Pennsylvania from Florida State's summer camp, Jones and his father arrived in Blacksburg - again unannounced - to check out Tech's summer camp. After tying Randy Moss' all-time 40-yard mark at the FSU camp, Jones and DeAngelo Hall, a defensive back from Chesapeake and another Tech signee, both ran a 4.3 in Blacksburg.

"He shocked me with that," Ward said.

During the rest of last summer, Ward says he wrote two letters each week to Kevin Jones.

"He was no different than any other recruit," Ward said. "It's just everyone else in the country was recruiting him too."

In this instance, Whammy was wrong. Jones was different. He was special. He was the most highly-touted running back in Pennsylvania since Tony Dorsett. In his high school career, Jones rushed for 5,878 yards and 84 touchdowns. He averaged 8.5 yards per carry and was named a Parade All-American earlier this month. The consensus prep All-America pick played in the inaugural National High School All-Star game in December and won the first ever High School Heisman Award for the Northeast region. He was recruited by Nebraska, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida, FSU - all the national powers. This wasn't just the best player in Virginia. He was the best player in the country.

"By this fall, I started to have good vibes about Kevin because of the strength and conditioning program we have at Tech," Ward said.

As the season progressed, it became apparent that Penn State would be the team to beat in this recruiting battle.

"It became pretty clear that Kevin wanted to go to a school where they ran the football," Ward said. "Florida State would not be a factor. Florida would not be a factor."

In the end it simply came down to the Hokies and Nittany Lions.

"Penn State has owned that state for a long time," Ward said. "They got to see him a lot easier than we could because his high school plays on Saturdays. His high school [Cardinal O'Hara] played only one Friday game all season."

Jones made his official visit to Blacksburg during the second weekend of December, and once again, hit it off with Hall, who was visiting during the same weekend. At that point, Tech's strength and conditioning program became a key issue, especially compared to Penn State's.

"Our strength and conditioning program is totally different than Penn State's and that was a factor to Kevin and his dad," Ward said. "They don't do 'cleans' and 'snatches' [a series of exercises with free weight designed to work the back and legs to gain more explosion] which is big here."

"Our kids get bigger and faster and that doesn't happen at Penn State. Plus, his dad mentioned that guys like Ki-Jana Carter and Curtis Enis [who had played at PSU] fizzle out in the pros. They get 30-35 carries a game in college, and for every carry you get in college, that's one less you'll get in the NFL."

In early January, Ward visited with Kevin Jones in the teacher's lounge at Cardinal O'Hara High School in suburban Philadelphia. It was on that day that Jones officially gave a verbal commitment to the Hokies. A week later, Beamer, Ward and Hite visited with Jones at both the school and the house, where he committed again, although the coaches and family agreed to keep the news quiet until Kevin could have a press conference at his school the following week.

"Actually, Kevin kind of teased Coach Hite during the home visit," Ward recalled. "Coach Hite kept asking about a commitment and Kevin said something about 'you'll just have to wait until the press conference next week.'"

But by the time Tech's trio of coaches left Philadelphia, they were confident they had secured the talented Jones.

Penn State, however, was not going to go away quietly. Later that night, PSU assistants Fran Ganter and Kenny Jackson arrived at the Jones house for a late push.

"Penn State hammered us on our black graduation rate and brought up the class of 1995 when only Cornell Brown [a former defensive end] graduated," Ward said. "Well, eight of the nine black kids in that class transferred or left school. Cornell stayed and Cornell graduated."

"They talked about that and the commitment they had to Kevin," Tom Jones said. "Interestingly, Kenny Jackson just left Penn State to take a job with the [Pittsburgh] Steelers, and he was the guy who was the lead recruiter for Penn State."

The following week, Jones held a press conference at Cardinal O'Hara. He pulled a Penn State jersey out of a bag, but then ripped off a shirt revealing a Tech jersey. He then told the assembly that he was Tech-bound.

"I wasn't sure what he was doing with both jerseys that morning," Tom Jones said. "He has said he was going to Tech, but that morning, he took two jerseys with him. It was odd."

It was the days after the press conference when Penn State made its full-court press, trying to convince Jones to change his mind.

"They kept calling after that," Tom Jones said. "They said they had heard that Tech had offered me a job and I told them that's crazy. I told them their own people were making that stuff up and that Kevin wanted to go to Tech. That's where he would play."

"[Joe] Paterno couldn't believe it. He told me that he had to be the stupidest guy on earth or Virginia Tech had to be the crookedest program in the nation.

"He's gonna have to get over it."

So, how good is Kevin Jones?

"He is the closest thing to Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson I've ever seen," Ward said. "He's a true 4.2 guy. He can run over you, run through you, run around you. He's physically ready to be a real player."

It's a great get for Tech and an important win for Ward personally and professionally. A year after losing the state's top player, he signs the nation's premier player.

"Put on an even field, I feel that I have enough confidence in myself to beat anyone in recruiting," Ward said. "It's all about honesty and developing a rapport with the player and his family. That's what happened in recruiting Kevin Jones. His parents were very involved and understood that while their town and community thought the Blue and White [Penn State] would be best, Kevin was more comfortable with us and with Tech."

Of course, there were some outside factors involved here too.

"Penn State's not winning big now," Ward said. "If they're winning, they'd be tough to beat for a kid like Jones."

Ward said Hall was "a major factor in the recruitment of Jones." And of course, Tech's million-dollar track was the reason Jones was on campus in the first place.

"Hey let's face it, if we don't have that track, we don't get Kevin Jones because he's never on this campus in the first place," Ward said.

But he will be on campus this fall wearing a Tech jersey where coaches expect him to play as a true freshman. After making his SAT scores late - Jones scored 1080 on his last test - the young man should embark on what could be a wonderful career.

Sure, the 'Michael Vick Era' is over in Blacksburg. But the 'KJ Era' is just about to begin.

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