COLLEGE PARK — In the small circular driveway outside Gossett Team House, Maryland football players walked out smiling to join family and friends waiting to celebrate after the Sept. 7 rout of then-No. 21 Syracuse.
Keandre Jones, who transferred home this year after spending three years at Ohio State, had one of the biggest celebrations. It makes sense, given the road Jones took to get here and the help he needed to make it through.
“It took a whole village to raise me,” Jones said a few days later.
Those who helped raise the senior linebacker will be out in force Friday, when the Terps (2-1) host No. 13 Penn State (3-0), hoping to recover from their loss at Temple that knocked them out of the Top 25 and took some steam out of their impressive start.
A combination of former coaches, teachers, teammates and friends will be there to support Jones.
Jones can point to his years playing youth football for the Germantown Boys & Girls Club, and Xavier Twine, who was the first to notice his talent. “My football journey started with him,” Jones said of Twine, whose nephew, Alex, played for the Terps.
Jones can point to his years at Montgomery Village Middle School, where he met Cindy Vance, an eighth-grade English teacher. Though Vance never had taught Jones, he lived with her family in Mount Airy his first three years of high school at Good Counsel.
He can point to his coaches at Good Counsel, specifically Anthony Ashley. Jones moved in with Ashley and his family in Howard County before his senior year at Good Counsel, and still lives with them when he is not at Maryland.
And he can point to his mother, Lauren Middleton, whose health problems forced her son to seek help from others and led to his decision to transfer to Maryland earlier this year. Middleton, who was not available to comment for this story, attended the Terps’ first two home games.
“She’s happy to have me back home, she’s healthy and that’s all that matters,” said Jones, who politely declined to discuss any particulars about his mother’s medical condition.
They are among many family members and friends — as well as current coaches and teammates — who are happy Jones decided to transfer back home.
“He’s an extremely charming and caring and sensitive kid, so it’s extremely easy to love him,” Vance said Friday. “You will never meet a kid with more drive and more positivity. He sees the positive in every situation. And to see where he’s gone with this is heartwarming.”
Said Ashley: “I remember when he was in the seventh grade, I said, ‘This kid can’t be this good of a person.' Then he goes through middle school and high school and he’s finishing up college, and he’s still the same kid 10, 12 years [later]. He’s that good a person.”
The first connection
Vance got to know Jones at Montgomery Village Middle School through her son, Nick, whom she had brought to school on a “Take Your Child to Work Day.” Nick was wearing a Sean Taylor replica jersey.
“Keandre asked him, ‘What do you know about Sean Taylor?’ And Nick just fired back at him, ‘What do you know about Sean Taylor?” Vance recalled. “After that, Nick was just obsessed with him. We had to go to every single game. Nick just fell in love with him.”
The relationship grew from there.
When Jones was being recruited to play at various private high schools in the area, Middleton was contemplating a move to North Carolina to be closer to her family. Jones wanted to stay in Maryland and asked Vance if he could stay with her family.
“He knew he was always welcome with us,” she said. “His mom was open [to him living with Vance], which I commend her for. We all wanted to do what was best for Keandre. We all knew it was in his best interest and he was going to make something of this. At that point, he was family. My kids call him their brother. It was really a no-brainer.”
Vance would drive Jones from her home in Mount Airy to a Good Counsel bus pickup in Damascus every morning, and either pick him up at school or at the pickup after practice. Middleton moved south briefly, but Jones remained with Vance and her family after she returned.
Jones said after a recent practice that he’s appreciative of the time he spent with Vance and her family.
“It was extremely helpful,” Jones said. “A familiar face, just having that support system there for me was definitely helpful in my career and as a young man. Just continuing to make her proud, get my degree.”
Vance, who calls Jones “my oldest child, my oldest baby” said Nick, now 16, and her 17-year old daughter, Amber, learned a lot from Jones.
“He taught them to always stick up for the underdog, extend that love because you never know what anyone is going through or what they may be facing," Vance said. “That kindness and compassion have become my kids’ core values more than anything in the world.”
Jones eventually moved in with Ashley, who had started recruited him to Good Counsel when he was in eighth grade and Ashley was the team’s running backs coach.
“I knew his mom, and me and another coach at Good Counsel sat at their kitchen table for four hours,” Ashley recalled Thursday. “I let her know, it’s not about a trophy. I was going to be with him for the rest of his life.”
When Jones was being recruited to Ohio State, Ashley said “we had to go through compliance, because we treated him just like our family, our son. He accepts it, his mother accepts it. We’re one big family.”
Ashley and his wife, Leslie, have also taken in several other players along the way, including Towson’s Keon Paye, former Kentucky player Kobie Walker and Maryland linebacker Shaq Smith, who started at Clemson before transferring to College Park over the summer.
“[Smith] and Keandre are like brothers. They’ve been together for at least five or six years,” said Ashley, now the varsity football coach at Pallotti. “When he was at Clemson and Keandre was at Ohio State, we went to the bowl game when they played against each other.”
A fresh start
Unlike his three seasons with the Buckeyes, when he played limited snaps on defense and a little more on special teams, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones has made a significant impact on and off the field for the Terps.
Jones has 15 tackles, third behind senior safety Antoine Brooks Jr. and redshirt sophomore linebacker Ayinde Eley, a former teammate at Good Counsel. Jones has 3 1/2 sacks, which is tied for fourth in the Big Ten with Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos.
Though he didn’t show it in terms of individual statistics at Ohio State — Jones had 29 tackles and one sack with the Buckeyes — first-year Terps coach Mike Locksley believes the habits he learned in Columbus have helped him make an immediate impact at Maryland.
“Keandre is a high-effort, high-motor guy. He understands how to prepare and he came with the habits and behaviors that I often talk about,” Locksley said Tuesday. “I’ve said it before — his leadership has been remarkable for our locker room.”
But there’s more to the smooth transition. Jones also seems at home playing outside linebacker.
“I think we’re playing him at the right position,” Locksley said. “We’re probably utilizing the skill set that he has best and putting him in the best possible position to be successful. But the way he practices and the way he prepares is why he plays at the level he plays.”
Adam Friedman, the Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals, watched Jones extensively in high school. He said Jones is finally playing the right position, with an aggressive defensive scheme under coordinator Jon Hoke that seems to bring out his talent.
“I think he’s in a system that better fits his skill set,” Friedman said. “[In high school] he was a big, athletic guy who could fly around in coverage, but knew how to come downhill. Had great instincts, could see the running lanes and was a pretty sure tackler. When you combine all that with the proper scheme and using him correctly, he can be an outstanding linebacker.”
Asked recently about the contribution he has already made, Jones said, “Just starts in practice. I’ve been consistent with my efforts in practice. It’s one of those things where your time is coming. That’s what I did. I stayed [focused]. I put in the work and I’m happy to see the results.”
The circumstances that led him to transfer to Maryland involved his relationship with his family, both immediate and extended. Along with his mother’s health, one of his grandmothers and an aunt had died. Ashley also had surgery after being diagnosed with cancer.
“He was homesick. He’d come home and he’d not want to go back,” Ashley said. “I said to him, ‘Dude, you’ve got to finish it out.’ ”
Ashley said Jones went into the 2018 season knowing it would be his last at Ohio State. Even though there was turmoil surrounding the Terps after the death of Jordan McNair and the eventual firing of coach DJ Durkin, Maryland seemed a likely landing spot.
“Everyone told him to just play four games [in order to get a redshirt] and then stop, but he didn’t do it,” Ashley said. “He’s the type of kid that gave it all for who he was playing for. He didn’t think about his future. He was [at] Ohio State and he was going to do what they needed him to do. He sacrificed a year. He chose to give it all to the school who was giving to him until he couldn’t give anymore.”
There was some uncertainly about whether Jones would get to play for the Terps this season. After putting his name in the NCAA transfer portal in mid-January, Jones had to wait until the night before preseason camp began in early August to learn he had been granted a waiver to gain immediate eligibility.
Jones credited his teammates and his faith for getting him through.
“You get through it with the guys in this locker room,” he said. “The guys make sure I’m sure I’m prepared, I’m ready. Competing in practice, the weight room, whatever it is. Like I said, it’s in God’s hands. I just stayed to the course and on track and let everything resolve itself out.”
Come Friday night, Jones hopes to turn that preparation into results. This will mark the biggest game in which he is expected to play a major role since he left Good Counsel. Maryland Stadium is expected to be sold out for the first time in four years.
“I wish I could put it into words, but I haven’t found words for what it feels like to play at home,” Jones said. “I can’t really tell you what that feeling is. All I know is I’m excited. My teammates are excited I’m back here. My family and friends are excited I’m back here.”