Jones name starting to catch on nationally, despite ECUs lack of success

On Saturday, the Pirates star became the all-time FBS leader in receptions. On Monday, he was named one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, symbolic of the nations best receiver

James Guillory—X02835
Nov 19

Dark clouds rolled over Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during the second quarter of East Carolina’s Senior Day game against Navy. It was an ominous sign that was symbolic of the way both the game and the Pirates’ season.Before the approaching gloom could fully set in and the visiting Midshipmen could pull away for a 66-31 victory, emerging ECU superstar wide receiver Zay Jones gave fans a reason to celebrate.His eighth catch of the game, on a five-yard out pattern from quarterback Gardner Minshew, increased his career total to 388, breaking the FBS record set by former teammate Justin Hardy just two years earlier.The occasion was marked by a banner celebrating Jones’ milestone unfurled from the roof of the Murphy Center in the west end zone and a ceremony that, for at least a few glorious moments, provided a welcome distraction from what has otherwise been a nightmare of a season.”It’s conflicting because this isn’t where we want to be,” coach Scottie Montgomery said. “In the middle of it all, I see the shining light that Zay has been in.”I know it’s been tough for him and it’s especially tough when you’re a senior. It would probably be a lot different for him if he was a junior and having this type of success, but I see what he’s doing and I respect it.”Earning Montgomery’s respect is no small accomplishment. He’s a former NFL wide receiver who played with and against some of the best in the game at wideout.Jones also managed to catch the attention of those who don’t have the benefit of seeing him play and practice every day.On Monday, the prolific senior was named one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s best receiver. The two other candidates are from Power Five programs — Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook and Northwestern’s Austin Carr.Regardless of who ends up winning the honor, Jones simply being in contention is significant considering that the man he replaced in the FBS record book — Hardy — didn’t even make the cut as one of 10 semifinalists.As good as Hardy was in 2014, when he caught 121 passes, for 1,484 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014, Jones has been exponentially better. His eye-catching numbers are so far off the charts even his team’s lack of success can’t be held against him.His 151 receptions heading into Saturday’s season finale at Temple aren’t just 48 more than anyone else in the nation, they’re more than 17 entire teams have recorded this year. He is just five catches away from breaking the FBS single-season record.”Not to be cocky, but when you play this game you’ve got to have the mindset that you’re the best,” Jones said. “And I do consider myself to be the best in the country. That’s just my competitive nature. That’s my mindset.”That attitude is only part of the reason why Jones’ coach believes he will be just as successful at the next level as he is in college.”He could dominate and play for a long time,” Montgomery said. “He has multiple seasons left. His skillset is dynamic. He has a large catch radius. There are a lot of reasons why we’ve had so many [NFL] general managers in this building this spring and fall.”Jones has repeatedly downplayed his pursuit of the career receiving record, but the emotion he showed on the field while being honored was a tell-tale sign of how much it really means to him.It helped that Hardy, now a receiver for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, was on hand to personally congratulate him, as was his father — ECU Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion Robert Jones — and the rest of his family.Including a sibling he wasn’t expecting to be there.”It was an unbelievable experience to see my family here,” said Jones, who has also been recognized for his excellence in the classroom as a finalist for both the William V. Campbell Trophy — symbolic of the top scholar-athlete in college football — at the Senior CLASS Award.”My little brother surprised me. I didn’t know he was coming. To see Levi here, my grandparents were able to make it down and to have the former guys to come back — including Justin — just made it such a memorable moment.”The only thing that dampened the celebration was the outcome of the game ECU falling to 3-8, meaning Jones won’t finish his career by playing in a bowl.He can at least take solace that his success helped give his teammates a reason to smile that they might not otherwise.”I still get chills on my body,” said hybrid back James Summers, who threw passes to Jones during his tenure at quarterback last season. “That kid really worked for that [record]. It was awesome to see him get that. I feel like I won an award out there.”