IOWA CITY — The guys living in the same house on the University of Iowa campus last spring were Spencer Petras, Nico Ragaini, Tyler Linderbaum and Charlie Jones.
One of those four was not like the others. It was Jones.
He’s a walk-on, a guy who lost a year of eligibility when he decided to leave Buffalo’s football program after his freshman season in 2018 to see if he was good enough to play in the Big Ten Conference.
He is good enough, too, it seems to join his three former housemates as a scholarship guy some day.
“I’m a big believer in earning things, I guess,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, after his team’s 49-7 blowout of Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium. “That’s kind of how it’s always worked, and it’s usually how the game works. But we’ve also got a pretty storied tradition of walk-ons, and I think we’ve always been really fair with them. We’ll take care of that whenever it’s appropriate (with him). He certainly made big steps today, that’s for sure. If his agent contacts me tomorrow, we’ll talk about it and see where it all goes.”
Jones saw some time at wide receiver Saturday for Iowa, a chance that came up with the absence of the suspended Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He ran a couple of jet sweeps for first downs.
Where the Deerfield, Ill., native really made his bones was as a punt returner. He returned five kicks for 105 yards, including a 54-yarder for touchdown late in the second quarter that gave Iowa a 28-0 lead.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about in meetings,” Jones said. “(A good return) definitely brings a ton of energy to the sideline. It brings up everyone’s energy. So, yeah, it definitely had an impact on the game.”
Jones fielded a line drive Bryce Baringer punt at his 46 on the right hashmark. He cut toward the middle of the field, saw an opening back to the side he originally was on and ran that way, getting some key blocks down the sideline and taking it home.
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“I haven’t had an anxious moment with him back there,” Ferentz said. “I just feel really good with him back there fielding: good judgment, good ball skills ... To watch the way he’s performed three weeks now, it’s really great. He’s a pretty good player on offense, too, so you’ll see him keep working forward that way, as well.”
Jones was a big-play receiver as a redshirt freshman at Buffalo (21 yards a catch), also returning kicks. He knew Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek because North Dakota State (Polasek’s old school) recruited him in high school, as well as Hawkeyes receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who coached at fellow Mid-American Conference school Northern Illinois before coming to Iowa.
That helped him cement his decision to transfer.
“I loved my teammates over there at Buffalo. I loved those guys,” Jones said. “But I wanted to play against the best of the best. I knew that in the Big Ten, they do that every week. Then it just comes down to working hard. That’s a day in, day out kind of thing. I knew that if you do that every day, when the opportunity comes, you just take advantage of the opportunities you are given.”
The kid sure seems to be doing that right now. He is averaging 15 yards on 10 returns in Iowa’s three games, employing an aggressive, no-fair catch approach.
“Charlie Jones, he’s shown it to all of us since he’s been here, really,” Petras said. “He’s a really good player, a great teammate, prepares really well, works hard. That’s expected. He’s a great player, and I’m really happy that he got the success he had today.”
“I wanted to go somewhere where I knew people and I knew guys on the team,” Jones said. “I knew this was a program where you can really work your way up just with hard work. That’s really what it is: come out every day and work hard, and when your opportunity comes, take advantage of it.”
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