The Syracuse Orange could not have scripted a more anti-climactic start to Doug Marrone's first game as head coach.
The Orange had elected to open the Marrone era on offense, but Jim McKenzie's first snap of the season flew over the head of quarterback Greg Paulus and was recovered by Minnesota at the 16-yard line. Ten seconds later, the Golden Gophers had a 7-0 lead.
With a near-capacity crowd sitting silenced and befuddled, Syracuse had handed Minnesota momentum in the most crushing of fashions.
That is, until a redshirt freshman went and ripped it back with a 79-yard kickoff return that brought the Orange faithful to their feet. The offense could only muster a field goal, but the home field advantage had come back into the equation as the fans had something to scream about.
Mike Jones already had enough going against him when he injured his knee during spring ball in March. He had just spent his freshman year redshirting, only able to show his talents behind closed doors at practices for coaches who were no longer employed at Syracuse University.
The media and fans were abuzz over the abundance of talent at Jones' position, running back, yet Jones' name often came last, if at all, in the debate over who would head up the depth chart come September.
The cherry on top came in the form of that knee injury that required surgery, sidelining Jones until early August. He joined the team for fall practice with little more than a month remaining until the season opener. He took little more than a week to carve out his niche on the roster.
From Syracuse.com's Orange Football Blog, Aug. 11:
Redshirt freshman Mike Jones didn't practice in the spring because of a leg injury. Marrone said Jones has caught his eye particularly as a kick returner.
Jones continued to impress in the weeks leading up to the season opener. Marrone continued to laud him.
Marrone sounded like he was about to burst into the Happy Happy Joy Joy song over the four players he has at running back—Delone Carter, Antwon Bailey, Averin Collier, and Mike Jones. Marrone mentioned that Bailey has an unspecified injury, but is coming around. And while he's consistently been pumped about Carter, the player he mentioned tonight that is raising his eyebrows—and his stock—is Jones, the redshirt freshman from Harrisburg, Pa.
From Syracuse.com's Orange Football Blog, Aug. 24:
"I could play any one of those guys," Marrone said. "I really could. I'm happy with them. There will be a position for them. Obviously, the one that is playing the best is Delone Carter. Antwon Bailey is playing well. He has a little nagging injury but he'll be fine. He'll be playing tomorrow. Averin Collier is starting to come along well. He's coming away from some nagging injuries. But Michael Jones has been a surprise for me. I mean, I'll be honest with you."
By that time, Jones had already secured the spot as the team's returner on kickoffs. He made an immediate impact in front of 48, 617 Carrier Dome patrons on Sept. 5 in the season opener against Minnesota.
Jones' efforts resulted in the Orange having an average starting position of their own 38-yard line following a Gopher score. With an offense that was still adjusting to a new quarterback and a new scheme, the added yardage helped Syracuse muster enough points to force overtime before falling, 23-20.
Not even mighty Penn State could contain the Middletown, Pa. native the following week when he found seams for returns of 38 and 39, both following Penn State touchdowns. The Orange lost, 28-7, but the offense was again provided a cushion with an average start position of their own 31-yard line following Nittany Lion kickoffs.
Northwestern became the third Big Ten team to struggle against the Orange kick return unit when Jones gave Syracuse an average start position of the 32. Marrone also decided to give the 5'11" freshman some touches on offense, and Jones responded with first down runs of 11 and 14 yards to go along with a 14-yard reception.
The Maine Black Bears went with a different approach in Week Four when they visited the Salt City, keeping the ball away from Jones. Head coach Jack Cosgrove called for two onside kicks (both successful) and another kickoff sailed out of bounds. Jones did manage to get his hands on two kickoffs, averaging 19 yards per return.
He was also trotted out for a punt return and gained 14 yards on a short punt by Michael Brusko to give the Orange 1st-and-10 at the Maine 31. He also ran the ball once for five yards, giving him 30 yards rushing for the short season on just three carries.
While Jones' role in the offense remains limited, he continues to shine every time the ball touches his hands. And while he has yet to break "the big one," his consistency on Bob Casullo's special teams unit has landed his name at the head of the nation in kick return yards.
On 18 tries, Jones has racked up 464 yards, an average of 25.8 yards per return. His total yardage figure ranks first in the nation and his average is in the top 15 for returners with 10 or more attempts. Pretty good, but not yet tremendous as Jones is still in search of pay dirt.