Rutgers walk-on lives out childhood dreams after tumultuous journey
Dancing his way out through the opening on the line of scrimmage, the ball carrier shifts to his left and bursts down the left sidelines.
With the ball firmly tucked away — naturally pressed high and tight against his chest with a suffocating grip locked underneath his bicep, forearm and palm — he drifts out of bounds as the whistle blows to end the play.
It’s a hot, steamy Wednesday afternoon in what is the third day of practice at the Rutgers football team’s 2015 training camp. For the first time, the Scarlet Knights strap on the shoulder pads with limited contact.
And the longest run of the day belongs to a running back that no one from the sidelines quite seems to recognize.
Is it Paul James? Not quite, the senior's black knee brace stands out among the Rutgers tailbacks now as he completes his comeback from an ACL injury.
What about Justin Goodwin? Nope. At first glance, the jersey looks like it reads as the junior's No. 32. But a closer examination shows it’s just one digit off.
The mystery man, who dons a No. 33 scarlet practice jersey, is Greg Jones. He’s a fourth-year junior, and Rutgers is his fourth college stop along what has been a tumultuous, humbling journey.
All of it may seem unconventional, radical and at some points, even impossible. But to Jones, he’s right where he always planned to be.
Greg Jones has always dreamed about running out of that tunnel from the Hale Center and onto the field in front of his friends and family in Piscataway.
Ever since he picked up the game of football as a young boy, the Colonia, New Jersey, native has always wanted nothing more than to put on for his home state.
“I’m a Jersey boy, you know what I mean? It’s home,” Jones told the Targum. “I’ve come to these games so many times. … It was just a whole bunch of times I’d come here and sit in the stands like, ‘Man, this is something that I really, really, really want to do.’”
From his Pop Warner days with his hometown Iselin Giants to the record-setting legacy he left behind up the road off Route 1 at Colonia High School, all Jones wanted to do was to spend his Saturdays clad in scarlet.
As a four-year letterwinner at running back and defensive back, Jones almost singlehandedly brought the Colonia High School football program back to prominence in the Greater Middlesex Conference.
Before Jones’ senior year, the Patriots had been slumping ever since Eric LeGrand — another legendary running back and linebacker at Colonia who played his final season in 2007 — took his talents to the collegiate level at nearby Rutgers.
Former Colonia head coach Pellegrino LaSala, who coached both LeGrand and Jones, remembers the impact that the two had on the 2007 and 2011 teams being identical.
“To me, they make other people around them — they rise their performance,” LaSala told the Targum in a phone interview. “They’re two different types of players. Eric was a beast. Greg was not as big as Eric, but … he was a little bit more shiftier and Greg can do a thousand things. I mean, Greg could’ve been an All-State quarterback if we played him at quarterback. He was just a great, phenomenal athlete.”
Despite his Division I aspirations, Jones knew it was all or nothing entering his final high school season and the stats prove he was a man on a mission.
As a senior, Jones hoisted the team over his shoulders and carried them through his 2,080 yards and 33 touchdowns on 239 carries — an absurd 8.7 yards per carry, if you’re doing the math.
The Patriots reached the North Jersey Section 2, Group 4 quarterfinal, posting the first winning season since 2007 with a 7-3 overall record. Coincidentally, that was also a 7-3 season — the last with LeGrand.
The accolades came pouring in for Jones, who was named Third Team All-State. The Home News Tribune crowned him the 2011 Offensive Player of the Year, capping a career where he shattered the school’s career rushing records with 4,264 yards and 62 scores.
“He just made people around him better. He put pride back in our program,” LaSala said. “… He kind of policed the thing himself and those are a coach’s dreams — guys who can not only take care of themselves, but take care of the people around them on and off the field. And I think that’s what Greg did.”
At the end of the 2011 season, schools came calling from all over. But to Jones’ disappointment, Rutgers wasn’t one of them.
When signing day rolled around in February, he penned his letter of intent to play at East Stroudsburg University. Jones received some interest from Division I-AA schools, but elected to continue his playing career at the Division II level across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.
Despite his intentions to continue his college career at tailback, the coaching staff at East Stroudsburg shuffled him across the line of scrimmage to safety. During the final week of preseason, personnel threw the rookie into the ring of fire at linebacker — a position he had hardly played a down of in high school.
As far as the numbers go, the move paid off for the Warriors. Jones blossomed as a true freshman, starting the final eight games of the 2012 season at outside linebacker and racking up 72 tackles. The mark was good for second on the team and the most by any freshman since 1997.
But despite the early success and all of the optimism that surrounded his career at East Stroudsburg, Jones transferred out after the end of the fall semester.
“I don’t know, really young,” Jones said of his decision to leave the school despite making an immediate impact. “Made a lot of stupid choices.”
From there, Jones drifted a bit. He returned home to Colonia, enrolling locally at Middlesex County College for the spring semester before taking the junior college football route at Monroe College in New Rochelle, New York.
Just like that, after going from the face of his high school’s football program to the future of East Stroudsburg’s after his freshman year, Jones felt lost.
“It was rough, not knowing what your next step is, you know,” he said. “Playing football your whole entire life, and then sometimes something happens and it doesn’t go your way. And you’re sitting out a whole entire semester or year. I mean, there’s always gonna be trial and tribulations in your life. But I feel like I hit a lot of them — like, a lot of them.”
But he never once thought about stepping away from the game. He knew that, eventually, his time would come.
“Absolutely not,” Jones said when asked if he ever thought his playing days were over. “I mean, this game is my life. And Rutgers gave me the opportunity to give life back to what I want to do … I’m blessed to be here.”
So, just how exactly did he get here?
Upon the completion of his senior year at Colonia, one of the Division I-AA schools that expressed interest in Jones was the University of Maine. It was there where he crossed paths with Joe Rossi, Rutgers’ current defensive coordinator, who served as the Black Bears’ head coach from 2007-11.
That path eventually led Jones right back home.
“I reached out to everybody on the coaching staff, sent in my highlight tape, emails, a whole bunch of stuff,” Jones said. “I actually knew Coach Rossi. He recruited me out of high school when he was at … Maine. He was recruiting me there and he came here and, I mean, we stayed in contact and he let me know if I wanted to walk-on here, he would give me a shot — that Rutgers would give me a shot.”
With that in mind, as cliché as it may be, Jones approached every game at Monroe as if it were his last.
As a third-year sophomore with the Mustangs in 2014, Jones dashed for 444 yards and found the end zone seven times on 98 carries. He even showed some flashes of versatility catching balls out of the backfield, tallying 10 catches for 88 yards receiving.
When the season was over, he waited. And waited.
Playing the wait game grew exhausting, but Jones credits an unbreakable supporting cast for believing in him every step of the way.
“There’s been a lot of people who would tell me, ‘Don’t get down on yourself. You’ve still got a chance,'" he said. "'You have two more years. You’ve gotta figure it out. Whatever team offers you a chance to play for them, you’ve gotta give it your all.’ That’s been my family, guys from my high school.”
With his future unknown, Jones never took a day off at home.
When he wasn’t in the gym, he was back on the same fields he spent his entire life dashing down the sidelines on with the same kids that were practically his brothers on and off the gridiron from his youngest days to his high school days.
He even sought advice and training from the same Pop Warner coach who helped him develop into the athlete he is today.
Ultimately, he never forgot where he came from.
“At Colonia High School, I’m there everyday,” Jones said, referring to his training leading up to Rutgers. “Before (Colonia) had the turf … we were at Woodbridge (High School) all the time. Now that they’ve got the turf, we were there everyday, we’ll be at Woodbridge on the weekends. On Sundays, I used to work with Coach Jimmy — he was my Iselin Giants coach.”
As he sits with his hands folded at a table inside the Brown Football Recruiting Pavilion at High Point Solutions Stadium, Jones dons the uniform he’s always dreamed of wearing.
With his last name delicately stitched in red lettering on the back of his pristine, white Rutgers away jersey before the Knights get set to take their 2015 team pictures down on the turf, a humbled Jones is now living out a fantasy.
But as a walk-on — and the rollercoaster journey he’s taken to reach this level — Jones isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I’m not sure how it works,” Jones said of his current walk-on status. “As of right now, I just know I’ve gotta bust my behind every single day — and that’s what I come to do.”
Through one week of practice with Rutgers, he’s certainly shown that on the field. Mixing in with the first and second teams on offense, Jones shoots through holes on the line of scrimmage, surging with adrenaline.
He knows the odds are stacked highly against him at the position. In a rotation that features five returning rushers who combined for 2,012 yards and 18 touchdowns on 417 carries, it’s highly unlikely that Jones sees any playing time as the unit’s sixth man.
But that hasn’t stopped him. And as deep as the position already is, don’t rule anything out.
Through the first week of camp, junior running back and last year’s leading rusher Desmon Peoples (out) still has yet to touch the field. With his status also updated to out, sophomore tailback Robert Martin’s activity has also been quelled.
And fifth-year senior Paul James — without a doubt one of the nation’s top running backs when healthy — hasn’t played in a game since tearing his right ACL on Sept. 20 at Navy.
Prior to that setback, James, who hasn’t played a full season since his high school days at Group 1 Glassboro (New Jersey), had his season cut short with a fractured fibula in 2013.
If his number were ever to get called — just as it has for the likes of James, Peoples, Martin, Goodwin and sophomore Josh Hicks in the past two seasons — does Jones think he has what it takes to fill the void?
“Absolutely,” Jones said. “When my opportunity comes, I plan on taking full advantage of it. I mean, of course (head) coach (Kyle) Flood makes that decision when my decision or time will come. But you know, when that time comes, absolutely I feel like I can make a big impact.”
At the same time, Jones respects and looks up to the five Knights ahead of him in that rotation. Seeing how much of an impact they have been able to make and the experience they possess going head up against the gritty front sevens that linger in the physical Big Ten Conference, he’s been all ears since reporting to camp Aug. 9.
“They teach me almost everything that I know,” Jones said. “Ever since I got here, they’ve been a huge help. They’ve been giving me a lot of advice on what to do, what not to do. And when I came here … I just exploded through holes and wasn’t really patient enough.”
During Media Day, first-year offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels harped on the character of the running backs unit that starts with the top five returning Knights in the rotation.
“They enjoy being in the same room together. They support each other and they are excited for each other's successes,” McDaniels said. “It would be different if one or multiple guys had some significant egos that were concerning, but that's certainly not the case.”
In some capacity, all five of them have been the new guy at one point and they shared some advice with the latest newcomer.
“They told me to just really let the game come to me and just play my game, be smart — just take my time and be a little bit more patient when I run the ball,” Jones said. “And in film, and everything like that, they help me out a tremendous amount.”
The first scrimmage of training camp takes place on Monday.
All eyes are locked on the quarterback competition between sophomores Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig. Elsewhere, the offensive line looks to fill in some of the gaping holes left at center, right tackle and left guard.
The first inter-squad action of August marks the first time the Knights hit the turf for a game-like atmosphere at High Point Solutions Stadium since the Scarlet-White spring game on April 24.
Jones is still trying to take it all in.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Clearly, this has been a dream of mine since I was a little, little, little kid watching Rutgers.”
For obvious reasons, Flood’s attention has been locked onto the evaluations of other members of the team at other positions on the roster.
But Jones has managed to catch the eye of his fourth-year head coach.
“He’s done a nice job. Yeah, I think Greg’s done a nice job,” Flood said. “I think it’s still a little early, but I like his effort. That’s probably the best thing he’s done so far.”
Regardless of where he’s lined up on the field, Jones has one message for all the Rutgers fans that may not be too familiar with him just yet.
“I’m here to play, and be a huge asset at any way, shape or form,” he said. “It may not be running back, whatever the case may be. Whatever I can help this team do, I’m here to do.”
For Jones, it’s all out of love — love for his home state, love for the team he grew up bleeding scarlet for as a die-hard Rutgers fan and most importantly, for the love of the game.
“I’m open to play any position,” he said. “I love the game. The game is what drives me to play. It doesn’t matter what position it is. So, whatever I can do to help this team, I’ll do it. Anything.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.