UTSA, North Texas to meet in Conference USA West division showdown

UTSA wide receiver Brady Jones shrugged off a mistake and rallied to spark the Roadrunners at the end of last week’s 52-49, five-overtime loss to UTEP. Jones said the UTEP experience makes the Roadrunners even hungrier for success. In a test of their resilience, they will host the North Texas Mean Green Saturday night.

By Jerry Briggs
For InsideRunnerSports.com

Last weekend, near the end of the wildest game in UTSA football history, wide receiver Brady Jones made a glaring mistake and then bounced back with a memorable play to secure an eye-opening measure of personal redemption.

This week, he wants more.

He wants nothing less than a victory when the Roadrunners host the North Texas Mean Green in a Conference USA matchup set for Saturday night at the Alamodome.

“Our last game hurt,” Jones said earlier this week.  “But we got to be able to take something from it, and we will, for sure.  I think we’re just hungry.”

The UTEP Miners escaped UTSA in the dome last weekend with a 52-49 victory in an epic five overtimes.

“That’s a game you want to try to find a way to win,” Jones said. “We unfortunately weren’t able to do that.  So … we’re hungry, (because) that one really stings.  (Now) we want to get back out there and get a win.”

In the aftermath of the UTEP game, the Roadrunners have searched their souls all week in preparation for the Mean Green (4-3 overall, 2-1 in C-USA).

UTSA (3-4, 2-2) made plenty of mistakes on all levels – including busts on offense, defense and special teams – against UTEP.

But nobody felt worse about it than Jones, who may have cost UTSA a chance to break a 28-28 tie when he dropped a pass in the last minute of regulation.

If he had made the catch on a throw from Dalton Sturm, he likely could have run deep into UTEP territory, at the very least, and might have scored.

“I mean, I knew I was open,” Jones said.  “I saw the coverage and I knew if I ran a good route, I had an opportunity to get the ball.  And then when it was in the air, I knew it was wide open and just kind of took my eyes off of it, thinking about after the catch.”

Showing considerable fortitude, Jones didn’t let the miscue prevent him from nearly winning it for his teammates in overtime.

He made a leaping grab of a 25-yard touchdown pass from Sturm for a tie at the end of the second extra period.

Then he caught a 2-point conversion pass in the third OT.    But in the end, after a missed 42-yard field goal by UTSA kicker Victor Falcon in the fourth overtime, UTEP prevailed in the longest game in C-USA history and tied for the fifth longest in FBS history.

Earlier this week, UTSA head coach Frank Wilson admitted that the loss hurt his players, and some of it carried over to Sunday’s film session and light practice.

But, in a show of support, Wilson left Jones at No. 1 on this week’s depth chart, indicating the former walk-on will be a starter against the Mean Green.

Explaining his decision to keep throwing to Jones in overtime against UTEP, Wilson said, “because that’s our belief in the team.”

“Adversity happens,” Wilson said.  “So, just play the next play. The test of character of a man is, ‘How do you respond, once you’ve been knocked down?  How do you respond when that play is not successful for you?’ “

Throughout his football career, Jones has always seemed to respond, finding a way to succeed.

Coming out of Class 2A George West High School in South Texas, the former prep quarterback and free safety disregarded offers from some “smaller schools” and walked on at UTSA in 2013.

In choosing UTSA, he not only wanted to prove himself as an NCAA Division I player, but he also wanted to spend at least one season on the same roster as a friend from South Texas, Eric Soza.

At the time, Soza was playing as a UTSA senior and was engaged to Jones’ older sister, Audrey.  Eric and Audrey are now married, with a 13-month-old daughter, Tatum.

“Brady is one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever seen,” said Soza, now the offensive coordinator at Medina Valley High School.  “He’s been through three different position coaches (at UTSA) in three years, or three in four years, whatever.  But every time I talk to him, he always has a positive outlook.

“He’s never really down.  He’s able to have that positive attitude and just goes to work every day.”

Brady Jones redshirted and didn’t play in 2013, his first year out of high school, but he did get a thrill near the end of the season when he traveled to Denton for UTSA’s memorable first meeting against North Texas.

He watched from the sidelines as Soza led the three-year-old Roadrunners to a stunning 21-13 victory over the Mean Green, the leaders in the C-USA West.

“It was a cold (day), and it was intense,” Jones recalled.  “That’s the kind of game you love to be in.  That’s the type of game that Eric really (thrived) in. He loved to be in those situations, where every real playmaker wants the ball in their hands with the game on the line.  He was great at that.”

While Soza emerged as a three-year starter and a UTSA star from 2011-13, Jones’ journey to the top of the depth chart has been a bumpy ride.

He has played under two head coaches (Larry Coker and Wilson), two offensive coordinators (Kevin Brown and Frank Scelfo) and three position coaches, including Tony Jeffery (2013), Marquis Mosley (2014), Jeffery again (2015) and now Jeff Kastl.

After his redshirt season, Jones practiced but didn’t play in 2014.  He played nine games but caught only five passes in 2015. 

This fall, surprisingly, Jones has flourished as one of the smallest receivers in a position group highlighted by 6-foot-4 Josh Stewart and 6-0 Kerry Thomas, Jr. 

Bolstered by the confidence of the new coaches, Jones, at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, has grabbed 16 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns in seven games.

Jones has also thrown for a TD off a reverse, hitting backup quarterback Jared Johnson for a score at Old Dominion.

In essence, he’s battled his way into the playing rotation in a group that is now dominated by the biggest and fastest wide receivers in school history.  Wilson loves his versatility.

“He’s consistent and he’s reliable,” said Wilson, who awarded Jones with a scholarship at the end of fall camp.  “He’s made himself readily available (to the coaches) by mastering all of the positions -- the X, the Y, the Z and the H -- and so he can play in any one of those positions. 

“So, if he’s not the starter and somebody goes down, it’s, ‘I got it.’ Well, what about this? (He says,) ‘Oh, I can do that.’  Because of his attention to detail (in film study and at practice) and being a student of the game, it elevates his opportunities.”

Jones said he was “a little sore” physically after the grueling five-overtime game, which lasted 4 hours and 21 minutes.  But he likely felt more pain mentally because of the loss and because of the play on Sturm’s throw that he didn’t make. 

This week, Jones’ family helped him get through the tough times. He visited Sozas on Monday, on an off day.  Eric told him to keep his head up.

“As for the (dropped pass), those things are going to happen,” Soza said. “He was beating himself up about it after the game, and even yesterday.  But what can you do?  You got to learn from it.  I think that’s what he’s doing right now.”

Soza, who attended the UTEP game, said he thought Jones played well.

“It’s easy to say, well, he made this catch, or he dropped that ball,” Soza said.  “But I watched him when the ball wasn’t coming his way.  Is he blocking?  Is he running the routes he’s supposed to run?  I don’t know their offense, but I know a little bit about football.  And he was able to block well. 

“He even got on special teams, on kick returns, and did his best out there.  Even though it wasn’t enough to win, I’m very happy to call him my brother.  I’m proud of him and everything he does.  I know my wife is extremely proud of him. 

“She was going crazy in the stands, especially when he caught the touchdown pass.”

Perhaps most importantly, Jones made himself accountable to his coaches and to the fans in the days after the game.  He showed up at a media function on request and owned up to what happened.

Now he’s ready to put the lesson to the test against North Texas: Catch the ball first.  Secure it.  Then run for daylight.

“You can’t run without the ball,” Jones said.  “That’s kind of the deal, that’s the game.  That’s kind of how it goes.”

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