East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones needs only eight catches to become the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision's career leader in receptions, which would surpass former Pirate teammate Justin Hardy's 387. With two games left, the record could be broken Saturday against Navy. Walter Powell | 247 Sports
By Stephen Igoe
Special to the Times
He may have grown up across the country in the state of Texas, but East Carolina has become home to Isaiah Jones.
The East Carolina senior wide receiver, who prefers to now go by ‘Zay’, stands on the verge of college football history heading into his final home game, needing just eight catches to break his former teammate’s NCAA career receptions record.
The owner of 380 catches, Jones is seven behind former Pirate Justin Hardy’s 387. With an average of more than 13 receptions per game this year under his belt, breaking the record on Saturday’s Senior Day game at 4 p.m. against Navy seems like a foregone conclusion, and Jones wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else.
“I think it would mean a lot to our fans and to the guys who helped me get there,” Jones said. “But especially, it would just mean a lot to me. I would like to do it at home, and it’s ideal it’s done at home.”
More than four years ago, Jones came to ECU a scrawny and under-recruited wide receiver who most assumed would redshirt. No school in the entire state of Texas – despite there being 12 FBS programs in the Lone Star State – offered Jones, the son of former ECU legend and Super Bowl champion Robert Jones.
Just a few years earlier, Jones’ older brother – Cayleb Jones – signed with Texas as a consensus four-star prospect. While Cayleb had a solid collegiate career, he never came close to what his little brother went on to accomplish.
Jones picked East Carolina and Ruffin McNeill in the recruiting process, leaving Austin for Greenville in the summer of 2013 to come to the place his father once built a legacy.
“There are so many Texas schools and I didn’t get an offer from not one of them,” Jones said. “It fueled me a lot. Definitely added a lot of fuel to the fire. But it was definitely very fitting that I ended up here. I’m glad that I ended up here and glad things turned out the way they did.”
He caught a touchdown pass in his first collegiate game against Old Dominion and never looked back, hauling in 62 catches as a freshman. His totals have only increased every year, with 81 grabs as a sophomore and 98 as a junior.
This season? Jones has an almost unfathomable 137 catches for 1,473 yards. He leads college football in both statistics by a wide margin.
With two games remaining, Jones also sits just 19 catches away from breaking the single-season record for receptions of 155, which was done by Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes with the help of a bowl game in 2009.
Jones was an unquestioned playmaker when Scottie Montgomery’s staff first arrived, but his production skyrocketed with a few significant changes.
In a 3-7 season that has seen some ECU players unable to completely buy into Montgomery’s system after the controversial firing of Ruffin McNeill, Jones – who looked at McNeill like a second father himself – didn’t hesitate to make the transition.
The experience and expertise of Montgomery and wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan – two former NFL receivers and professional receiver coaches – only seemed to add to Jones’ repertoire.
“His transition into our belief system was seamless, 100 percent,” Montgomery said. “It got him even better on the field. He’s been able to grow away from the field as well. You like to have a lot of great players, but when you have a great player – I was one of them I’d like to think – and you come in with a new staff, there is some resentment no matter what. We didn’t reach that with him. I know I may have had some resentment and wanted to know what was going on.”
The staff decided to move Jones from primarily the slot as in the previous regime to learning all five different receiver positions in order to get Jones the best matchup on the field.
Despite missing spring practice with shoulder surgery, Jones seemingly never missed a beat. He’s caught double-digit receptions in nine of 10 games this year and tied an NCAA record with 22 receptions at South Carolina in the third week of the college football season.
“It’s a testament to his character, his consistency and his durability,” McGeoghan said. “It would speak volumes of how tremendously hard he worked, because it was a huge number of receptions that he had to accumulate. At the beginning of the season, he told me he wanted to do it, I kind of wrote the number on the board, and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ He’s been the same guy every day.
“I’ll be absolutely ecstatic for him and this program if he breaks that record.”
Jones’ time at ECU might be coming to an end, but his playing days in football are not.
All 32 NFL teams – including multiple professional general managers – have been in to see Jones at some point this season, and NFL Draft analyst Matt Miller has him as the third-best wide receiver prospect in the upcoming draft.
Montgomery, who coached arguably the best receiver in the league today in Antonio Brown during his time with the Steelers, said earlier this week he believes Jones can be dominant at the next level.
“He has to have, of course, an injury-free career,” Montgomery said. “His skillset is dynamic. He has a large catch radius. There are a lot of reasons why we’ve had so many general managers in this building this spring and fall. That’s unusual. We’ve had first-round draft picks other places I’ve been, but we never saw general managers. Everyone knows what he’s capable of, but now he just has to go through it.”
As for Jones himself, he admitted he’d be lying if he said he hasn’t thought about his professional future, but there’s only two things on his mind for now: a win in his final home game and that record.
“I’ve been here for four years now and I take so much pride in this university,” Jones said. “It means the world to me. These fans truly do. It’s just a blessing to be here. Just letting it set in that it’s going to be my final time playing in that stadium, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.
“But there’s no where else I’d rather do it one last time.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.