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Michael Jones' Biggest Gains Are Off the Football Field

November 01, 2000|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it were only about rushing yardage and touchdowns, this wouldn't be much of a story.

Since Michael Jones left Laguna Hills High in 1998 as Orange County's all-time rushing leader with 7,190 yards, he has gained exactly 79 yards and scored one touchdown for Idaho State, a Division I-AA school.

The most prolific ballcarrier in county history is a third-string running back in Pocatello, Idaho, and that's only because one back ahead of him is out with an injury.

But ask Jones if statistics matter, if football matters, and you'll get an answer you might not expect.

"Football is a way for me to get an education," Jones said last week from Pocatello. "This is nothing that's hit me overnight. It's just a matter of growing up. I've realized you can't play football forever. I know you need an education to get through life."

There were many at Laguna Hills who wondered if Jones would ever come to that realization. In his first few years of high school, Jones' mind was blurred by football and his friends. School came in a distant third. By the time he began to understand that he couldn't keep playing football unless he kept his grades up, it was too late.

So after Jones left his name all over the county record books, celebrated a Southern Section championship and graduated with his class, the only thing he had left was an offer from Idaho State to come to school as a non-qualifier. If Jones passed 24 units his freshman year, he could earn an athletic scholarship.

"In my mind, I knew I could do it," Jones said.

That first frigid year away from home turned out to be the longest--and the best--year of Jones' life. He learned how to cope without football, how to study and how to live away from his friends, his family and the spotlight.

He had thoughts of transferring or dropping out, but he knew he couldn't let down his mother, his former coach Steve Bresnahan, or the teachers, administrators and boosters at Laguna Hills who helped him pay for that first year of college.

"The town's real small," Jones said of Pocatello. "There's not much to do up here but study."

Academically, Jones survived his freshman year, maintaining better than a 2.5 grade-point average. But not being able to practice or train with the team set him back. He lifted weights but gained 15 pounds and was suddenly in the worst shape of his life.

Jones wasn't fit enough or fast enough to be a college running back, so Idaho State Coach Larry Lewis tried him at linebacker. The experiment failed miserably.

"We learned that Mike was not meant to be a linebacker," Lewis said. "He's a better fit at running back."

But Jones didn't fit into the Bengals' plans at all last year. He didn't play and he applied for a redshirt season. This year, Jones is playing on special teams and is the blocking back on the goal-line offense, but he has only four carries. It doesn't help Jones that the Bengals, 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Sky Conference, are a passing team and run a one-back offense.

"There's not a whole lot of balls to go around," said Dave Brown, the Bengals' running backs coach.

Idaho State's top runner is senior Nick Whitworth, the school's third all-time leading rusher. Isaac Mitchell, a redshirt freshman from Pocatello who ran for 3,000 yards his senior year of high school, is also ahead of Jones on the depth chart. Troy Bell, a junior from Pocatello, was ahead of Jones, but he is redshirting after being injured early this season.

"Not playing would be tough for anybody, especially someone who carried the ball 35 times a game in high school," Jones said. "It's tough, but I know I'll get more playing time."

Bresnahan, who now coaches the freshman team at Laguna Hills, said he finds it hard to believe Jones can't break into the lineup.

"He's as good a running back as I've ever been around," Bresnahan said. "If they've got a better one, he must be pretty good. I don't know what they're looking for. He's not going to run a 4.4 or 4.5 in the 40. He's a 4.6 guy, but I've never seen anyone catch him from behind."

Brown, in his first season as the Bengals' running backs coach, questioned Jones' work ethic.

"Mike's biggest downfall is he's not the greatest practice player," Brown said. "When he's in a live situation, he's full go. But seven on seven or in a drill, he's not a full-speed guy. I think some of that is his personality. He's a pretty laid-back guy. When things are on the line, on the field or in life, he steps up."

In one of his rare opportunities, Jones stepped up and stepped into the end zone in Idaho State's season-opening victory over Montana Tech. Jones' touchdown, on a 73-yard run, was his first since high school. The last time he scored was in the Hawks' 56-14 victory over La Mirada in the Division VIII final. In that game, Jones ran for 369 yards and four touchdowns in 48 carries.

"It felt good to get back into the end zone," Jones said.

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