Nobody has ever introduced themselves to college football quite like Jeshaun Jones.
It was the first game of the 2018 season, and Maryland was taking on No. 23 Texas in Landover, Md. The freshman wide receiver’s first career touch came on the Terps’ opening drive, and he took a jet sweep 28 yards for a touchdown. His second touch came in the middle of the first quarter, as he blew past the Longhorns’ defense, hauled in a deep ball and scampered the rest of the way for a 65-yard score.
For the exclamation point, Jones’ very next touch was an end-around that became a pass. He floated it into the end zone and wide receiver Taivon Jacobs dove to make the catch. Maryland led 24-7, and Jones was the only player in the recorded history of the sport to have a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown on his first three touches.
Jones’ breakout was one of many storylines that afternoon as the Terps pulled off a 34-29 upset. The Fort Myers, Fla., native showed he not only had the potential to become a high-impact player, but that he already was.
“It was unreal. No one thought that was going to happen,” said Nicole Baran, Jones’ mother. “I didn’t even think he was going to play — his dad and I had already prepared ourselves, we didn’t even think he was going to touch the field. We were just so happy to see him in his uniform on the sideline, and to have that experience, it was unreal.”
Jones finished his freshman season second on the Terps in receptions (22) and receiving yards (288) — Maryland didn’t pass very much or very well that year — and had a team-high five receiving touchdowns. He got faster and stronger during the spring and summer. As the 2019 season approached, Jones was expected to be the ace wideout in new head coach Michael Locksley’s offense.
But on Aug. 5, 2019, that plan went out the window. Jones left practice with a knee injury, and MRI results confirmed the worst — he had torn the ACL in his left knee. It was the second practice of fall camp, and Jones’ season was over in a flash.
“I knew something was wrong. As soon as I [injured the knee], I knew something wasn’t right. Once I went to the doctor and they told me to get an MRI, and when that came back, they said it was an ACL,” Jones said. “That was tough. It was definitely a tough time for me that year, just knowing that’s such a huge injury.”
It marked the first serious injury of Jones’ football career. He had missed games before, but always with the knowledge he’d be able to help his team again soon. That’s what made the 2019 season especially difficult — Jones had to watch his teammates from afar knowing he couldn’t join them on the field. For the first few games of the season, he wasn’t even on the sidelines. He’d pick up on certain things but couldn’t tell his teammates right away.
“For the first little bit, you feel like you’re kind of isolated,” Jones said. “They’re at practice and you’re in the training room. You go out when you’re done doing your treatment or your rehab … it was tough at first. But when I got off crutches, it was definitely a lot easier, it was a lot smoother from there.”
Missing a season with an injury presents mental challenges in addition to the rehab process, but Jones had a strong support system to help him through it. He and Baran speak glowingly of the Terps’ training staff. Jacobs, who suffered multiple major injuries during his time at Maryland (2013-2018), reached out to Jones with encouragement once he heard the news. There’s a long history of torn ACLs within Maryland’s program recently, which has brought about a support group of sorts for others going through that process.
Jones enrolled at Maryland when quarterbacks Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome were both rehabbing ACL injuries — Hill suffered another tear in 2018 — so he had seen what went into the process from afar. Jacobs and fellow wideout Chris Jones had suffered the injury before, and so had running backs Jake Funk and Lorenzo Harrison III. When Jones went down, safety Antwaine Richardson was rehabbing an ACL tear from the spring. And two weeks later, linebacker Durell Nchami suffered the same injury, which meant he and Jones went through their recoveries on similar timetables.
“It was great that they had each other there because they could push each other,” Jacobs said. “On the days that they didn’t feel like doing something because something was getting repetitive or [they were] just tired of being there, they see the other guys working that day and vice versa. It all goes hand in hand.”
By March, Jones was doing drills and running routes again — he probably wouldn’t have been a full participant in spring practice, but the game was starting to become “second nature” again, he said. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which blew up in the U.S. just before Maryland’s spring break. Camp would have started shortly after students returned, but they never did.
“He came home for spring break, so we had his flight booked home, back to College Park,” Baran said, “and then all of a sudden, it was like, now it’s going to be two weeks longer, and then it’s going to be a month longer, and then, ‘Go ahead, cancel your flights, we don’t know when we’re going to be back.'”
Once it became clear Maryland wouldn’t have spring practice in person, Jones knew he needed to stay on top of his rehab from home. He kept up his diet and stuck to his training routine. He worked with a local physical therapist and consulted with Maryland’s medical staff to make sure he was doing everything right. The team sent workout equipment to players, and players and coaches remained in touch through video chat. Even with Jones more than 1,000 miles away from his closest friends on the team, the group remained close-knit.
In addition to support from his Terrapin family, Jones has a strong network locally. He worked out with Antwan Dixon, a close friend and wide receiver at Kent State, as well as Marshall wideout Willie Johnson. This group often joined up with NFL receivers and Southwest Florida natives Sammy Watkins and Michael Walker. Watkins won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs this past season, while Walker was a rookie with the Jaguars.
The 2020 college football season is still not a sure thing, as the coronavirus not only maintains a strong presence in the country but has become prevalent within several football programs. But coaches and players always stress controlling what can be controlled. They can only worry about becoming the best versions of themselves right now. That’s what Jones has been doing, and whenever it’s time to play football again, he’ll be ready.
“I just really want to come back as a whole, bigger, faster, stronger, better,” Jones said. “That’s my goal. I want to be back better than ever.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Originally published July 8, 2020