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With new beginning, Jacoby Jones looks for consistency with Ravens

In an instant, Ravens return specialist Jacoby Jones lost his grip on the football and his job security.

During the AFC divisional playoff game between the Houston Texans and the Ravens in January, things went awry for Jones in what became his final game with the Texans.

Jones became a relative pariah in Houston after he muffed a first-quarter punt that led to a Ravens touchdown. He later fumbled another punt in that game, which ended in a Texans loss.

Fans took their frustrations with Jones to message boards and Twitter, demanding the Texans get rid of him. They got their wish in May, when the Texans cut Jones after trade rumors surrounded him during the NFL draft.

"I'm human, and it hurt me a lot," Jones said. "People make mistakes. People that dwell on the past never succeed in life. The people who dwell on that one game, that's the people who play fantasy football or never played the game.

"It made me a better person. It was just another obstacle in my life that I've had to overcome, and I did. I don't have a fumbling problem, but all people talk about is that one game. It's in the past. I'm black and purple now."

It was hardly a difficult choice for Jones when a fresh start in Baltimore was offered to him. The change of scenery is an ironic twist considering his bad game against Baltimore essentially ended his time with the Texans after five years with the team that drafted him in the third round.

Throughout Jones' career and life he has experienced the consequences of mistakes and he said he has learned from each of them. With each step he has relied on those closest to him to keep him grounded, motivated and encouraged as he attempts to establish himself with the Ravens.

"It's really a good fit," said Emily London-Jones, his mother. "Change has always been good for Jacoby, for all of the challenges he has in life."

'I didn't have a father growing up'

Whenever Jones crouched down in his sprinter's stance during his youth track meets, he always knew he was never alone in his pursuit of the finish line.

London-Jones ran alongside him next to the track chasing and cheering him on.

"As soon as they shot the gun, she would take off and get as close as possible to Jacoby," said Allen Woods, Jones' former track coach and assistant principal at Murray Abrahamson High School in New Orleans. "She would run next to him, screaming, 'That's my baby! Go, Jacoby go!' She was pretty quick, so she used to stay up there with him."

It's been just Jones and his mother ever since she divorced his father when Jacoby was 18 months old.

A director of financial aid at Xavier University of Louisiana, London-Jones demanded that Jones get good grades or he wouldn't be allowed to play sports.

She nurtured him with her homemade Cajun cooking, whipping up heaping portions of seafood gumbo, boiled crawfish, crawfish etouffee, crawfish pie, jambalaya, turkey necks and red beans and rice.

"I truly am proud," London-Jones said. "It's a blessing for him to be where he is today. After his father and I divorced, I was always his mom and his dad."

London-Jones' reassuring presence built a strong bond for her son's formative years in Louisiana, his emergence from obscurity at tiny Lane College, to being drafted by the Texans in 2007.

"I didn't have a father growing up, I don't even know what he looks like," Jones said. "It was just me and my mom the whole time. She's my best friend, my mother, my father, my sister, all of the above. She's there for me every day."

At her home in New Orleans, London-Jones has a curio cabinet filled with Jacoby's three AFC special teams player of the week awards and his touchdown footballs. Jones used to hand-deliver them, jumping into his mother's arms in the stands whenever he scored with the Texans.

"I'm a proud mama," London-Jones said. "Mama Jones will be at every one of Jacoby's games this season."

Late bloomer

Strong and fast at a sculpted 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Jones is much larger than most return specialists.

It's hard to fathom that Jones was only 5-7, 160 pounds when he graduated from high school.

"I was a late bloomer," said Jones, who spent his freshman year at Southeastern University running hurdles. "I had no scholarships out of high school. I was always the guy who was overlooked."

That changed quickly when Jones walked on at Lane, a small Methodist school in Jackson, Tenn., that competes at the NCAA Division II level.

After a seven-hour drive to campus with his mother, Jones tried out for the football team. During that audition, London-Jones said her son faked out a starting cornerback so badly that the defensive back lost his lunch.

"He regurgitated right there on the field," London-Jones said. "Afterward, the coach asked the cornerback: 'Can we use this guy?' He said, 'Hell, yeah.' I had never heard of Jackson before, but that's where Jacoby's athletic ability blossomed."

Jones experienced a major growth spurt after his freshman year, utilizing the weight room to fill out his frame.

He was named the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year and most valuable player as a senior. He finished with 200 career receptions, 2,750 yards and 21 touchdowns, returning four kickoffs for scores.

"I just grew," Jones said. "I ate my green beans. Life is crazy."

Wakeup call

The crazy life continued for Jones.

Once the Texans drafted Jones with the 73rd overall pick in 2007, he was introduced to a faster-paced, glitzier world.

He had money for the first time after signing a $2.45 million rookie contract that included a $777,000 signing bonus. And he admittedly enjoyed himself, frequenting the vibrant Houston nightlife.

Arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence after recording a 0.13 on a Breathalyzer exam in March 2008, Jones pleaded guilty and was entered into a special program for first-time offenders where he had to attend alcohol education classes.

"That was when the light went off in my head," Jones said. "It's not college anymore. Everybody is looking at you and you represent the organization. You feel like you're on top of the world, but I had to learn from my mistakes. I straightened my act out."

Jones had never been in trouble before, but was suddenly in the headlines for an off-field issue.

"It was a reality check for him," London-Jones said. "I told him he had to be a man and face up to his responsibilities, and he did."

Jones said he makes much smarter choices off the field now. Since that incident, he hasn't had any further transgressions.

"I still socialize, I still have fun, I go out a little bit every now and then and enjoy myself, but I control myself," Jones said. "I don't go out acting crazy."

Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, who also played with Jones in Houston, has noticed a big difference in Jones and sees how he can help the Ravens.

"He's grown up, obviously," Leach said. "He matured more. He's ready to take that next step, I think. In Houston, he did a great job but they just wanted to go another way.

"I think he got a fresh start [in Baltimore] and everybody knows what he can do on special teams and he's a fast wide receiver with great hands."

Striving for consistency

Jones was an electric return man in Houston, running back three punts and one kickoff for touchdowns in five seasons.

Although Jones started 21 games for the Texans, including 10 last season when Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson was injured, he rarely produced on a regular basis. Jones caught 31 passes for 512 yards last season after a career-high 51 catches for 562 yards and three touchdowns two years ago.

However, much more was expected from him.

"He's got everything that you look for: size, speed, quickness and explosiveness," Texans receivers coach Larry Kirksey said. "He's got tremendous ability. We all know he has the skills, but the question is, 'Will he be consistent?' Eventually, he'll get it. He's grown up a lot.

"You've got to be a true pro like Anquan Boldin. When he becomes that kind of player, he'll play for a long time. He can make unbelievable catches, and he can also lose his concentration on ones he should make with no problem."

Being released from the Texans meant an opportunity for Jones. Although Jones visited the Carolina Panthers prior to meeting with the Ravens, it didn't take much convincing for him to sign a two-year contract with the defending AFC North champions worth up to $7 million, including a $1.8 million signing bonus.

From the moment he walked into the Ravens' locker room, Jones felt accepted. Two friends and former Texans teammates strong safety Bernard Pollard and Leach were already on the roster.

He was slated for punt and kickoff return duties and being the third wide receiver. During the preseason, Jones has routinely made acrobatic catches where he twisted his body like a pretzel to haul in spirals from quarterback Joe Flacco.

Yet, Jones will occasionally drop simple slants and out passes when he's all by himself.

"Sometimes, you get lazy and you think it's an easy catch and I take my eye off the ball," Jones said. "It's all about focus."

What is left for Jones is to convince the Ravens he can reach the potential he sees for himself.

"There's always a time where you can use a good breath of fresh air, and I love the opportunity here," Jones said. "There's greatness here, and they'll bring the greatness out of you. …

"Ever since the first day I walked in the locker room, they took me in and it's like I've been here for six years. It's a good vibe. I can't complain. I'm lucky."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ravensinsider

JACOBY JONES FILE

Age: 28

Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds

Hometown: New Orleans

College: Lane College

Acquired: Signed to two-year, $6.5 million contract on May 8.

Draft: Houston Texans third-round selection, 2007.

Career stats: 127 receptions, 1,741 yards and 11 touchdowns; 64 kickoff returns, 1,490 yards, one touchdown, 22.3 average; 179 punt returns, 1,820 yards, 10.2 average, three touchdowns.

Personal: Mother is Emily London-Jones, a director of financial aid at Xavier University (La.) ... Didn't play football until junior year of high school. … Jones was 5-7, 160 as a high school senior … Gave $10,000 gift last year to fund scholarship for underprivileged students to attend his alma mater.

Awards: Three-time AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. … Was named Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player of the Year as a senior.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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