There was a period of time in which Maryland wide receiver Jeshaun Jones thought his long-awaited return to the field might be delayed another year, as the coronavirus pandemic put the Big Ten football season in jeopardy.
The redshirt sophomore’s rehabilitation from a torn ACL in his left knee was almost sidetracked by COVID-19. Then he had to sit and wait with the rest of his teammates after the Big Ten initially postponed the season.
But with the conference’s decision to play an eight-game regular season starting Oct. 24, and the Terps inching closer with the start of padded practices Wednesday, Jones is eager to build on a strong freshman season.
“Now that I have this opportunity to play now, it’s just a blessing,” Jones said Thursday on a video conference call.
Jones’ debut was one of the most historic in Maryland and college football history. In an emotional game at FedEx Field, with the team devoting its season to Jordan McNair, the 19-year-old offensive lineman who died from heatstroke in June 2018, Jones stole the show.
His first three touches — a 28-yard jet sweep, 65-yard catch-and-run and 20-yard pass — all went for scores. He became the fifth player to accomplish the trifecta in a game, and it helped lead Maryland to an upset victory over then-No. 23 Texas.
Jones finished the season with 22 receptions for 288 yards and five touchdowns, along with two rushing scores, in interim coach Matt Canada’s run-heavy offense. He was poised to enter his second season as one of Maryland’s top receivers until he tore his ACL in an August practice.
So Jones watched from afar as the Terps struggled in their first season under head coach Mike Locksley, finishing 3-9 and 1-8 in conference play.
The time off the field was a “humbling experience” for Jones, said his mother, Nicole Baran. Jones, who Baran called “ultra independent,” had to rely on his teammates both emotionally and physically, asking for help with simple tasks such as carrying food and setting up his chair early on.
And aside from breaking both arms in Pop Warner football in high school, which sidelined him for about six weeks, Jones had never spent so much time away from the game, Baran said.
“It was tough for me,” Jones said. “I wanted to be a part of it every day. It was hard for me to go to practice. It just wouldn’t sit right with me being out there and not being able to do anything, knowing that there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t even get out there and jog if I wanted to.”
Jones underwent knee reconstruction and said he couldn’t walk for “a couple weeks.” He progressed from walking to light jogging to trying to run, which took him into February. When Jones went back home to Fort Myers, Florida, for spring break in March, he anticipated he would be away from College Park for about a week.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced. The University of Maryland soon closed its campus, and what had initially been a one-week respite turned into multiple months.
Even without in-person access to Maryland’s trainers, Jones continued to rehab with a local physical therapy clinic and connected with friends and other athletes around the area to stage workouts and training sessions since most gyms were closed. Without traditional equipment, Jones had to get creative.
“We were filling up gas cans and doing squats with gas cans and walking them down the road as if we were pulling weights,” Jones said. “We were making a lot of stuff up, just trying to make the best of it, because we didn’t have anywhere to go.”
With the start of Maryland’s 2020 season just three weeks away, Jones said his knee feels “great” and said he returned to full strength about a month ago. Locksley said that because of the team’s unique stop-and-start practice schedule in recent weeks, the team will “be smart” with Jones — who is still reluctantly wearing a brace in practice at the advice of his trainer and mother — but he joins a talented wide receivers group that includes freshman Rakim Jarrett, a five-star prospect, and junior Dontay Demus, who broke out last season with 41 catches for 625 yards and six touchdowns.
“There’s no doubt that Jeshaun is one of those guys on our team that we feel brings playmaking ability — big playmaking ability — as evident in the type of year he had his true freshman year,” Locksley said.
“There’s no doubt the experience he had from playing as a freshman as well as having been here for the install of the new system that we run has really benefited himself because I haven’t seen him miss a step or miss a beat, per se. … There’s no doubt heaving a healthy Jeshaun Jones is good for Maryland’s offense, and we’re excited to have him back.”