Somewhere in my attic, I have an old mousepad touting Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El for the 2001 Heisman Trophy.
Virtually every sportswriter in the country got one as part of an all-out blitz to give the multi-talented quarterback the national name recognition he might not otherwise have gotten playing for a Big 10 also-ran with little to no previous football tradition.
Though the campaign wasn’t successful in terms of winning Randle El the Heisman — Nebraska’s Eric Crouch brought home the hardware that year — it did succeed in earning him 46 first place votes and first-team selection on several All-America teams.
I bring this up not to dazzle you with my knowledge of obscure college football facts, but because the anecdote relates directly to the situation facing ECU’s Zay Jones this season.
It’s a subject for debate as to whether Jones is currently the best wide receiver in college football. What’s not up for discussion is that nobody, perhaps ever, has put up the kind of numbers that the Pirates’ star senior has through his first eight games.
Jones already has 114 catches for 1,089 yards, the second-best season in school history. He’s already broken both the ECU and American Athletic Conference single-game marks with 22 receptions against South Carolina. At his current pace, Jones won’t just surpass Justin Hardy’s ECU record of 121 catches in a season and his former teammate’s national career mark of 387, he’ll totally obliterate both.
If he stays healthy for the final four games — or five should the Pirates suddenly get hot and become bowl eligible — he will easily surpass the 400 career catch mark.
“I’ve never thrown to a guy like that,” quarterback Philip Nelson said of his favorite target. “I try to go through my reads, but sometimes the coaches just want me to go to him.”
What makes Jones’ performance all the more incredible is that ECU’s second-best receiver coming into the season, Trevon Brown, was ruled academically ineligible and hasn’t played a game all season. Even though opposing defenses know that the ball will be coming his way virtually every time Nelson drops back to pass, no one has yet figured out a way to keep him from catching it.
He leads the nation with an average of better than 14 receptions per game.
And yet, the sad fact of the matter is that in spite of his superlative resume and an academic success that has earned him recognition as a national scholar-athlete finalist, it’s almost a certainty that Jones will be snubbed when it comes to the voting for on-the-field honors such as the Biletnikoff Award and All-America.
It’s an opinion backed up by precedent.
Just two seasons ago, Hardy was passed over as one of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver — even as he was in the midst of a season in which he caught 121 passes, just three fewer than national leader Amari Cooper of Alabama, while amassing 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to becoming the all-time FBS career leader.
The reasons given by voters for that snub are the same that you’re going to hear as they scramble to justify their leaving Jones off their ballots this time around.
He plays in a non-Power 5 conference.
He plays for a team that isn’t nationally relevant.
His per-catch average is too low.
He doesn’t score enough touchdowns.
It’s nothing more than a bunch of lazy excuses.
No, Jones might not play for a brand name program in a high-profile conference, but it’s not like he’s been catching all these passes against a bunch of sandlot teams from the neighborhood. It can be argued that ECU’s nonconference schedule this season — against Western Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech — is far more challenging than top-ranked Alabama’s slate of Southern Cal, Western Kentucky, Kent State and Chattanooga.
Yes, he’s averaging only 9.7 yards per catch, but many of his short receptions have gone for drive-extending first downs. And while he’s only gotten into the end zone three times, it’s more a product of the Pirates’ red zone inefficiency than his own shortcomings.
It’s a message those covering the Pirates need to be more aggressive in getting out to the public beyond the confines of Eastern North Carolina. As a Biletnikoff Award voter, I’ve already begun doing my part.
But because of the size of the markets involved, there’s only so much we in the media can do. That’s why it’s time for ECU to step up and take the lead in promoting Jones and the incredible season he’s having.
It’s probably too late in the game — not to mention cost prohibitive — to start sending out mouse pads or some other kind of trinket to every writer and broadcaster across the country. But in this era of instantaneous electronic communication, a catchy hashtag and a steady stream of Tweets, texts and emails are all it takes to create a buzz.
And perhaps, in the process, get a great player at least a little slice of the national recognition he has earned and deserves.