It was on an artificial turf field in Hershey, Pa. Hersheypark Arena, the place where Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points, sat just outside of the open south end of the stadium. In the distance east of the stadium, a roller coaster made continuous loops on a warm summer night.
It was the Big 33 Classic in Hershey, Pa., and the bright lights of the college football postseason were nowhere to be found. Jones and Smith were wearing red, though, representing Ohio in the annual prep summer all-star game that at the time matched up all-stars from the state of Ohio and the state of Pennsylvania.
Ohio led 14-7 in the second quarter when Jones took a snap, let loose his legendary arm and hit Smith in stride down the middle of the field behind the defense. The throw came over Smith’s left shoulder and settled in his arms, a 54-yard score that helped Ohio to a 50-14 drubbing of Pennsylvania – the most points Ohio scored in the legendary all-star matchup.
The two had another deep completion waived off because of a holding flag, and afterward, all Smith could do was marvel at the arm of the player he had seen on the other side of the field in high school – Smith’s Massillon Washington team and Jones’ Cleveland Glenville outfit met in the playoffs when the two were juniors – but hadn’t had the luxury of having on his side until that overcast night in central Pennsylvania.
“It was good,” Smith said at the time. “We clicked the first day of practice.”
To Jones’ recollection, though, it was the second day of practice when the two first hooked up – and another Ohio State player was involved.
“I think it was day two of practice on Doran Grant,” Jones said Tuesday with a huge smile. “Devin just smoked him.”
If it’s true – Grant couldn’t be reached for comment – there would be no shame in that. College football’s best defensive players have been seeing similar results since Jones became the team’s quarterback when J.T. Barrett went down in the fourth quarter of the Michigan game.
Against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, the chemistry between Jones and Smith helped Ohio State sweep into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Just 1:59 into the game, Smith outjumped Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton for a 39-yard touchdown pass from Jones to give OSU a 7-0 lead. The two later hooked up for TDs of 44 and 42 yards as part of the Buckeyes’ 59-0 romp.
The story was the same vs. Alabama. Jones misfired on his first five passes – or, more accurately, couldn’t find anyone open on many of them and threw the ball away – before a 40-yard hookup with Smith put the ball at the 1-yard line and set up a field goal.
On the first drive of the second half, Jones spied Smith with a step on cornerback Eddie Jackson down the right sideline. He uncorked his right arm, Jackson stumbled and fell to the turf, and Smith hauled in the 47-yard score to give the Buckeyes the lead for good.
The connection is real.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Jones said. “That goes back to high school when me and Devin played in the Big 33 game. I know how he likes the ball and he knows me.”
“It’s nothing new to me,” Smith added in the Superdome locker room. “I know exactly how he throws the ball, and it’s no surprise to me how good he’s playing.”
The Big 33 Classic hinted of good things to come, but it would take a while. Also an Ohio track champion, Smith caught another touchdown in the game – this one from the arm of Ohio’s other QB in the game, Connor Cook (you may have heard of him) – and headed to Ohio State the next day.
Meanwhile, Jones – who finished 4 of 6 passing for 140 yards and was named the game’s offensive MVP – went home. He reported instead a few weeks later to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, where he spent a year before enrolling at Ohio State in winter 2012.
“It’s sort of weird, but I don’t have to wake up tomorrow,” he said at the time with a laugh. “I can sleep in. I just told (my future OSU teammates) I’ll play with them our second year on campus. I got to know them over the week, trust them.”
It’s been a long road since then, with Smith moving into second in career touchdown catches at Ohio State and Jones having to wait until Barrett’s injury to see meaningful time on the field.
But now, it’s all come together. The man with the golden arm – Jones can throw the ball close to 85 yards – and the man with the unbeatable legs – Smith’s career mark of 20.5 yards per catch is fourth all-time at OSU – have the Buckeyes on the brink of a title heading into a Monday showdown in the CFP National Championship vs. Oregon.
And it all started mere feet from where the world famous chocolate is made.