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Jones switches gears quickly

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ECU's Zay Jones carries the ball as Navy's Micah Thomas tries to make a tackle during the first half at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Photo by AP/Rhett Butler/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 18, 2016

With the disappointment of not winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver and not finishing his senior year at East Carolina the way he had hoped fresh in his mind, Zay Jones did what he does on the football field.

He found another gear.

The man who has been decorated in All-American honors after rewriting the college football record book for wide receivers this season shifted direction like he does on an inside slant pattern. College is over, and already Jones is ready to face the scrutiny of professional teams, one of which seems certain to call his name at this spring’s NFL draft.

Unlike many of the other hundreds of college standouts across the country poised to audition themselves for a chance at a professional playing career, Jones already has all the motivation he needs, and a very realistic view of himself as a budding pro.

“I won’t let it get to me too much,” ECU’s all-time leading receiver said of the often unkind scrutiny of NFL scouting. “People have already criticized me a lot. People don’t really see me as a top-tier receiver yet, and the awards and things like that show that.”

Nonetheless, this year Jones set new NCAA standards for career catches and catches in a banner senior season for the 3-9 Pirates.

After a disappointing second straight bowl absence to finish his ECU career, Jones looked visibly displeased when he heard a name other than his own announced last week in Atlanta for the Biletnikoff. It seemed a final snub for the man who amassed a nation-best 158 receptions and 1,746 yards to go with eight touchdowns.

But Jones is past that already.

“I was blessed to be part of the nation’s best. I was very excited and thrilled and honored to go to such a prestigious awards show, to even be a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t win it. That’s OK. It would have been nice to win that, but I didn’t need a bunch of accolades and stars coming out of high school to show that I could compete at the college level, so I don’t need a bunch of accolades and stars coming out of college to show I can compete in the National Football League.”

All it takes, Jones said, is one chance from one NFL team. All 32 of them spent time scouting him this season as he soared to new heights when first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen opted to make Jones as much an outside threat as he was for three previous seasons in the slot.

Jones said he is optimistic he will make a connection with an NFL coach similar to the one he made with former ECU coach Ruffin McNeill and coordinator Lincoln Riley, whom he saw and spoke to at the Biletnikoff ceremony. Riley, now the OC at Oklahoma, was on hand to see Sooners receiver Dede Westbrook win the award.

“Some of the best players in the NFL never won those type of awards (in college),” Jones said. “Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round and is probably the greatest quarterback ever to play the game of football.”

Perhaps as much because of his team’s lack of wins in his final two seasons as anything else, Jones said the quick turnaround between one last round of postseason college accolades and the pro draft has been a forced, albeit refreshing rebirth.

Embodying the spirit of the ECU team for which he starred, Jones seems to be taking an underdog approach to the next level, where former teammate and NCAA receptions leader Justin Hardy is currently playing for the Atlanta Falcons after being signed there as a free agent following his East Carolina career.

“The way I see it, it’s kind of like starting over, being a freshman, a rookie again, because that’s the process I’m about to enter,” Jones said. “It’s starting from scratch, really having to prove myself and just start over in an entirely new league. It’s going to be a lot of training in the next couple of months coming up for me, and I’m just focused on preparing myself for the next level.”

The Austin, Texas, native and son of former ECU star and NFL mainstay Robert Jones said he has not settled on a training site yet, but noted he will likely head to either Arizona or California prior to the NFL combine and ECU’s annual spring pro day.

Wherever he trains, Jones said he will focus on increasing his speed first and foremost. That will include concentration on the all-important 40-yard dash.

“I pride myself on being consistent each year in every category — catches, yards, yards after catch — and I feel I progressed every year since my freshman year,” Jones said. “I want to continue that trend heading into the National Football League.”

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 or follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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