Mike Tomlin wore his William & Mary shirt to a media dinner one night and was asked if he had also been recruited by a more renowned football program.
"I wanted to go to East Carolina," he said. "I loved Jeff Blake, man. My mom made me go to William & Mary."
It was probably the best decision Tomlin ever made, getting that Jeffersonian education, but who didn't love that Blake-led ECU team at the turn of the 1990s? It was the greatest team in school history, 11-1 and ninth in the nation.
Blake was drafted by the New York Jets in 1992 and spent 14 years in the NFL. ECU middle linebacker Robert Jones also joined the NFL. He was the school's first first-round draft pick, went to the Dallas Cowboys, was the 1992 Rookie of the Year and won three rings.
Blake and Jones met sisters at ECU and married them. Both had sons make NFL teams as wide receivers, Emory Blake and Cayleb Jones.
Jones has another son who's hopeful. His name's Isaiah.
Tomlin knows him as Zay, and he has to be thinking about drafting him.
Zay Jones may not have been the most highly recruited receiver in his family, but his work ethic has pushed him into talk about the upper levels of this year's draft.
Most analysts have him pegged as a third-rounder, but a sensational Senior Bowl week, and game, was followed by an NFL Combine in which the 6-2, 201-pounder ran a 4.45 40 with a 36.5 vertical jump, an explosive 11-1 broad jump, and outstanding agility times of 6.79 in the 3-cone, 4.01 in the short shuttle, and 11.17 in the long shuttle.
And if Tomlin needs to get a behind-the-scenes scouting report, he can ask ECU Coach Scottie Montgomery, the former wide receivers coach for the Steelers whom Tomlin hired in 2010 as a 31-year-old.
Montgomery has already been promoting Jones publicly this spring.
“He’s gifted, athletically, and his length is probably what a lot of people don’t realize about him,” Montgomery told The Sporting News at the ECU pro day. “He has a large catch radius. Then the intangibles, the type of person he is, you connect all that with great hands, and that’s what a National Football League receiver who plays for a long time looks like.”
Awards and statistics round out the story. Jones was a finalist for the academic-oriented Campbell Trophy and Senior CLASS Award, was a two-time team captain, caught a school and conference record 158 passes for 1,746 yards last season, and caught more passes -- 399 -- than anyone in FBS history.
Jones averaged only 10.7 yards per completion because he was an extension of the ECU running game and caught so many short passes as a slot receiver, but he had his share of deep catches and was also difficult to defend in the red zone. Of his 23 career touchdowns, 13 (57 percent) were scored in the red zone.
If the touchdown-hungry Steelers like that stat, they loved what Jones did in the Senior Bowl. He caught six passes for 68 yards and a short touchdown, but also had one spectacular red-zone TD catch incorrectly ruled incomplete. Jones had a third touchdown, a 43-yarder, called back because of a teammate's facemask penalty.
That performance -- in which Jones showed his high-point skills, his ability to catch in traffic and his ability to get open deep -- capped a similarly played week in which he drew a steady stream of raves from scouts and media.
"I think (Temple LB Haason) Reddick and Zay Jones, in what they did during the week and then watching them (in the game), helped themselves more than anybody," Daniel Jeremiah said in one of many examples.
Jones also returned 30 kickoffs at ECU, 24 of which occurred in his sophomore season. And he learned the slot position as a three-year starter inside until his position coach approached him last summer.
"Coach Phil (McGeoghan) came to me and said, 'Hey, if you want to play in the National Football League, you’ve got to play some outside," Jones said at the Combine. "With your frame, with your size, with your skill set and your ability, we’ve got to get you outside. We’ve got to get you in some more pro-style routes, like 18-yard comebacks, curls, things of that sort. And I did make that transition, that leap, then I had my best year and caught 158 balls.”
Jones can now play five WR positions, runs precise routes, catches just about everything, can get deep, is an on-field leader, is NOT a prima donna (after barely being recruited, even as a legacy), and hasn't missed any time with injuries. His dad was a star, his uncle was an NFL quarterback, his brother and cousin made it to the league, his high school coach (OL Mike Rosenthal) played in the league, his college coach coached with the Steelers, he's smart on the field and in the classroom, tested superbly as an athlete, and put up better numbers than anyone else in history.
What's not to like?
A strange name?
"I always have gone by Zay," Jones said. "People have just called me Zay. Officially, I guess it got changed and I didn’t really know it did. I asked our marketing personnel. I said, 'Hey, what if I went by Zay as an announcement for football?' And then as soon as I knew it, they changed it in the program, on the website and things like that. I said, 'That’s not what I meant.' But they did it. My mom called me Zay Zay ever since I was born, so that’s always been kind of my nickname, but I still love Isaiah. Isaiah is who I am. Zay is also who I am."
The Steelers would probably have to call his name in the second round if they want to make certain to call him their own. Most experts have him headed for the third round, but the more people scratch the surface on Zay Jones, the more people like him.
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