But the younger Jones became a star in his own right as a senior at Notre Dame, and the Cowboys thought enough of him that they spent their top (second-round) draft choice to bring him to Dallas. As soon as he arrived last week for the team's rookie mini-camp, the comparisons began again. This time, he was being compared to someone with a pretty huge reputation, especially in Dallas: Emmitt Smith.
Anyone who calls a young athlete "the next so-and-so" is doing a disservice to that athlete and to the person to whom he is being compared. Harold Miner was supposed to be the next Michael Jordan. Jake Plummer was supposed to be the next Joe Montana. Eric Lindros was supposed to be the next Mario Lemieux. Those players all had varying levels of success, but the comparisons were neither fair nor accurate.
The parallels are there. Jones and Smith boast almost identical size and build (Jones arrived measuring 5-foot-10 and weighing 217 pounds). Each slid a little lower in the draft than his production might dictate because of questions about size. Each arrived in Dallas with the Cowboys in dire need of an upgrade in the running game.
RB Julius Jones at mini-camp last weekend.
Jones is used to comparisons, and doesn't pay a great deal of attention to them.
"I've dealt with that all my life," he said. "Growing up, I was always compared to Thomas. We're both slashing runners, but he's a little heavier, so the results are a little different. Same with Emmitt -- we might be about the same size, but we're different kinds of players. To be compared to Emmitt -- that's a big honor. But it's crazy -- we're different players. I'm not trying to be the next Emmitt Smith. I'm trying to make a name for myself here."
For all his talents, it's premature to speculate on the level of success Jones will enjoy, or even how much he'll play as a rookie, according to assistant head coach Sean Payton.
"He's excited, just like everyone else," Payton said. "Once we get into the second mini-camp -- then we'll know more."
What the Cowboys now know is that Jones represents a significant change from last year's starting running back, Troy Hambrick. (During the mini-camp, the Cowboys signed Hambrick to a one-year contract.) Jones is smaller than the 6-foot-1, 233-pound Hambrick, but he also is quicker and faster, and is a better receiver coming out of the backfield. Whereas Hambrick can use his size and strength to bowl over would-be tacklers, Jones uses his acceleration and elusiveness to find seams in the defense.
In case he starts to believe all the accolades tossed his way after his stellar senior season in South Bend, Jones has a new boss who has a knack for keeping egos in check.
"He's a really humble kid," head coach Bill Parcells said of Jones. "If that changes, I'll keep it in perspective for him. Before the Draft, I had a chance to meet some of the guys we drafted, including Julius. He told me, 'Coach, if you get me, I'll give you all I've got.'
"Comparisons are always going to be out there. When I was in New York, I would hear 'he's a good quarterback, but he's no Phil Simms. Every linebacker is compared to (Lawrence) Taylor. In New England, they're compared to (Andre) Tippett. But the bus stop is full of guys like that."
That Jones got drafted by Dallas is somewhat ironic, if not flat-out amusing. Jones grew up in Big Stone Gap, Va., which is deeply embedded in Washington Redskins country, where the two most popular teams are the Redskins and whoever's playing against Dallas. Jones admitted to being a fan of the Redskins ("I always liked Doug Williams, Art Monk -- I had posters of those guys in my room," he said), but unlike many Washington fans, he said he never harbored a hatred for the Cowboys.
"I was just a football fan," he said. "I've always wanted to play in the NFL. So I guess now I have to learn to hate the Redskins, because they're our big rival."
His relationship with Thomas led many to jump to inaccurate conclusions. "A lot of schools didn't even bother to recruit me," he said, "because they assumed I was going to go to Virginia."
This season, the relationship will cause more problems; Thomas' Bears visit Julius' Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Julius said he expects more members of his nine-member family to don the Cowboys' blue and silver than Chicago gear.
"If they want to stay with me," he said with a laugh, "they'd better be on my side."