Spring Practice Player Profile: Mark Jones

The imaginary sign on Neyland Sports Complex that reads, "Offensive playmakers needed ASAP," has been posted since the departure of tight end Jason Witten and injury-plagued receiver Kelley Washington for the NFL Draft. There may have been a current scholarship player that has answered that call before his future teammates from the 2003 signing class have gotten their own oportunity.

When time came last Thursday to kick practice off, the receivers started in a line catching passes. The first guy in line was Mark Jones. I was interested to see what he would do, so I was watching him all through the drill. Mark was obviously rusty, but showed a great ability to catch the ball. Surprising just by judging last season's catch productivity from his teammates at the same position.

For the record, that 2002 receiving group (minus Kelley Washington and including tight end Jason Witten) accounted for 195 catches for 2,192 yards and 13 touchdowns. To put that in persepctive, Washington and Donte Stallworth combined for 95 catches totaling 1,831 in 2001. Those numbers are only the two and didn't include Witten's stats.

So maybe it shouldn't have shocked me that coaches moved the electrifying Jones to receiver. Maybe I should have expected that to happen all along. He has shown flashes of being a tremendous playmaker even while coming off the bench to play. His kickoff return for a touchdown last season against Alabama sent Tennessee into the locker room with a renewed sense of hope against the Tide.

Fast forward back to practice last Thursday afternoon. Mark continued to catch the ball very well in position drills and had a quiet practice right up to team drills. For those that don't know, team drills are where the first team (or close to it) from offense and defense go against one another in light or no-contact fashion.

Mark was the first sub pushed in by wide receivers coach Pat Washington. Tony Brown and Montrell Jones were first up, but Jones wasn't far behind them. On his very first play in, quarterback Casey Clausen hit Jones across the middle. Mark was streaking across the middle of the field in a "Joey Kent vs. Alabama in 1995 style." He caught the pass and split the two safeties for a halfway touchdown. The defenders couldn't have tackled him because of no-contact, but I'm not sure they could have pulled him down regardless. A few plays after taking a break, he jumped back over corner Antwan Stewart and caught a nice over-the shoulder pass about 28 yards down the sideline for a nice gain.

Friday's practice was lighter and Mark really didn't make any waves catching the football. Saturday would end up being his day to shine.

Saturday the Vols went in full pads inside Neyland Stadium to perform a practice in front of 50-60 potential recruits for UT's "Junior Day." Mark, feeling more comfortable at his position, displayed his talents well in front of the high school kids.

When the offense went into their team drills this day, Jones was in the first group to lineup. After two running plays, Clausen went looking deep for Jones. The 5-9 senior out-jumped 6-1 senior strong safety Gibril Wilson to make a beautiful, bobbling 20-plus yard catch. That was only the beginning of the secondary's afternoon handling Jones. He would go on to make three more catches and only dropping one of four passes thrown his way. Quiet possibly the best of all his catches in this young spring was on a bomb from quarterback James Banks. It was very simple, but wonderfully executed my Jones. At the snap, Mark juked Jason Allen off the line. He then just outran Allen and safety O.J. Owens to make an uncontested touchdown grab.

Does Mark's performance thus far guarantee anything in the 2003 season for him as far as wide receiver is concerned? No way. Doe is mean that he will even remain at wideout for the rest of spring practice? Nope to that also. But if I had my guess he will be right in the mix when August rolls around for two-a-day practices. Don't be surprised if you hear his name a lot between now and the Orange & White game on April 12th.

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