As she sat in the stands at FedEx Field on Saturday watching her son make his college debut for Maryland, Nicole Baran thought back to what freshman receiver Jeshaun Jones told his mother throughout his childhood playing football in Fort Myers, Fla.
“The kid dreamed of this very moment his entire life,” Baran said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It was always, ‘When I play college.’ Not if I do. For him to come out of the gate like that, it was kind of like a clear intention on his part."
Still, seeing her only child participate in scoring plays the first three times he touched the ball to jump-start Maryland's 34-29 win over then-No. 23 Texas was something of a shock to Baran.
“It was unreal. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” Baran said. ”On one hand I was in disbelief and on the other I was almost relieved. I was like, ‘All right, he’s got that first one [touchdown] out of the way. The nerves are gone now. He doesn’t have to do anything else the rest of the game. And then it just kept happening."
Baran laughed at the memory of one of the touchdowns, on a 65-yard pass from Kasim Hill when Jones got into the clear and then ran the last few yards sideways, looking back at the Texas defender he had just beaten.
It was the same move he had made as a 5-year-old scoring his first touchdown in organized football.
“How crazy is that?” Jones’ mother said with a laugh. “I still have it somewhere on a video camera.”
While he didn’t do much the rest of the game — he finished with just one other catch for 8 yards — what Jones accomplished on those first three touches was enough for him to be selected as the National Freshman of the Week by CBS Sports and the Big Ten’s Co-Rookie of the Week with Purdue’s Rondale Moore, who scored twice and accounted for 391 all-purpose yards in a loss to Northwestern.
Scoring with a run (of 28 yards), a catch and a pass (of 20 yards to graduate receiver Taivon Jacobs) also put the 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver with the Odell Beckham Jr. hairstyle in select company.
According to ESPN, Jones became only the fourth true freshman to do that since 1996. The player to do that most recently in his first college game was Oregon quarterback and 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who was a redshirt freshman when he accomplished the feat in 2012.
During his news conference Tuesday, a reporter mentioned to interim Maryland coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada that one of Jones’ high school coaches said he was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
"That's exactly how we scripted it. It was just like that,” Canada deadpanned.”We knew he was going to score those three times, that was exactly the way we planned it to go.”
Turning a bit more serious, Canada added: “He's a special player, but we've got a lot of young guys that are talented. But his ability with the ball in his hand is something special.”
Asked Wednesday whether he considers himself that much of a scoring threat, Jones said a bit sheepishly: “Yeah, that’s kind of how I feel. But it’s not just me, though, it definitely takes a team effort. Without my teammates, it definitely wouldn’t be possible.”
Jones acknowledged that he didn’t understand the significance of his accomplishment until he heard an announcement on the field right after halftime about how rare it was for a player to score three different ways in the same game. It became more apparent when he looked at his cellphone after the game.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve still seen all the notifications honestly. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t want to think what I did was that big. It was crazy, like Twitter and Instagram. It was wild.”
One of those who applauded what Jones did was former Maryland star DJ Moore, who left after his junior year as the Big Ten’s top receiver last season and was later the top receiver taken in this year’s NFL draft, No. 24 overall by the Carolina Panthers.
“He gave me a little shoutout on Twitter. I thought that was was pretty cool,” Jones said. “We talked in the spring when he was down and he was telling me to grind and go out and show ’em what I can do. He was a hardworking guy and he told me to do the same thing, work hard.”
The last player to sign with Maryland’s 2018 recruiting class and an early enrollee in January, the former three-star prospect was conflicted about his status coming out of the same high school that produced former Clemson star Sammy Watkins, who along with Beckham were the receiver’s favorite players.
”The stars didn’t really matter, but it would have been cool to say I was a four or five-star,” Jones said. “Being a three-star it already motivated me to show other people and kids, especially [if they were] underrecruited, it showed that it doesn’t mean anything. You just go out there and show ’em what you can do.”
Given the tragedy and tumult surrounding the team since the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair in mid-June and third-year coach DJ Durkin being placed on administrative leave in early August, the transition to college could have been even more difficult for Jones.
But if any of the freshmen were prepared, it was Jones, who had four coaches in four years, including one year when two coaches, including the head coach, were forced to resign from the South Fort Myers High staff.
“Everything that they’re kind of going through with the whole Durkin thing and he’s going through right now as a freshman, he’s already been through,” said Matt Holdersfield, South Fort Myers’ defensive coordinator who took over on an interim basis when Jones was a junior.
Baran, who teaches life skills to special needs students at the high school, recalled thinking the same thing.
“When everything hit the fan with the coaching and Jordan, I was kind of like, ‘Oh, man, what do we do?’ ” Baran said Wednesday. “The coaching disruption sadly he’s accustomed to and he will adjust. That kid, he’s resilient. It’s been insane, the journey that he’s endured.”
Baran, who had to give up their annual weekly “date night” on Wednesday at a local Outback Steakhouse when her son left for College Park, wonders how Jones will now react to the spotlight he suddenly finds himself in on a national level.
“Maybe he does by now. I know initially he didn’t understand what a big deal it was,” Baran said. “Maybe that’s setting in with all the media attention.”
Said Holdersfield, who remains on the staff at South Fort Myers, “He’s not somebody who’s just going to blow up and have a big ego and personality like that.”
Given what he accomplished in his first college game, Jones seems to understand he will face more scrutiny — and defensive attention, as Texas seemed to give him after the three touchdowns — the remainder of the season.
Asked whether he could possibly build on his debut, Jones was blunt.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I wish I had an answer for that. We’re going to Bowling Green and we'll see what this week has to offer.”
Baran recalled a conversation she had with her son after he told her the team took videos of the players to run on the scoreboard during home games. When she asked for a copy of his, Jones told his mother, “No they don’t let freshmen do that. And they don’t let freshmen talk to the media either.’ ”
Her motherly advice?
“I told him, ‘Give them a reason to,’ ” she said. “And then he did.”
Three of them.