LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. has established himself as one of the most explosive kick returners in college football.
However, Jones’ biggest return might have been his decision to rejoin the Trojans after considering a transfer in the spring.
“It’s amazing being back,” Jones said. “I’m just here having fun. I get my degree in December, and so I’m blessed because of that.”
Jones is off to a fast start in what is shaping up to be his most productive season as a return specialist. He is averaging 25.6 yards per kick return despite an uncommonly high number of attempts. At a time when most teams seem content to take a touchback, Jones leads the FBS with 3.8 returns per game, one of three players averaging at least three returns per game.
Jones’ 487 return yards on 19 attempts are second nationally in both categories to Boston College running back Travis Levy, who has 503 yards on 21 kickoff returns.
Special teams coordinator John Baxter said there is still value in returning kicks, especially with a player as explosive as Jones.
“We still believe in challenging for every point,” said Baxter, who is in his eighth season at USC over two stints on staff. “If we have a chance to get the ball in our hands and do something with it, we’re going to make that attempt. If it doesn’t go our way, wasn’t our day.”
With Jones, whose best traits, according to Baxter, are “speed and fearlessness,” things have tended to go USC’s way. Jones had a 100-yard return for a touchdown in the season-opening 31-23 win over Fresno State, helping turn the momentum when the Bulldogs were making a comeback.
That was Jones’ first touchdown return in college, but he still remembers his first score on a kickoff return when he was an 8-year-old playing park league football in Alabama.
“And so it bounced on the ground, and I picked it up and just split two people and took it to the house,” Jones said. “That’s my first kickoff return. And you know, I just been living in that dream ever since.”
Jones also had a 61-yard return against Fresno State negated because of an illegal participation penalty when two USC players wore the same number, the kind of careless mistake the Trojans cannot make against No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday. The Fighting Irish rank 11th in the FBS in kickoff return coverage, allowing 15.7 yards per play, and have allowed 11 returns this season.
Making a big play in South Bend, Indiana, might be the ultimate way for Jones to reward coach Clay Helton for respecting his decision to enter the transfer portal in March because he wanted to be closer to his family in Saraland, Alabama. Jones considered several schools from the Southeastern Conference, including Auburn and Tennessee, before deciding in June to return to USC for his redshirt junior season.
Jones said Helton was incredibly gracious with his request, the culmination of a relationship that began when Helton started recruiting Jones in 2014 as USC’s offensive coordinator. Helton understood how important family was to Jones and gave him the chance to consider all his options without subjecting Jones to any sort of ultimatum about staying or going.
“And that’s why Coach Helton is special,” Jones said. “He’s really different. He’s his own person. He makes his own tradition and stuff, and that’s why I really like him. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another coach like Coach Helton, and that’s, like, what’s really special about this place and being up under Coach Helton.”
Jones is just as uncommon with the ball in his hands, which he credits to vision and composure for making a big play happen. He took the same approach in deciding to return to USC, and it seems to working out for Jones.
“You got to see it before you do it, and that’s anything in life,” Jones said. “So I just look for the gaps and the holes. I can get that extra burst, get in open field, and that’s what I’m hoping for and that’s why I run really hard to try to find them holes. It’s all about patience as well. That’s what I had to learn as a young kickoff returner playing at USC. Any chance you get a gap or a hole, you just got to hit it hard.”