The last time we saw Christian Jones on the field in a game, he was shredding the Illinois defense to the tune of 13 catches for 182 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
That was Thanksgiving weekend, 2013.
Jones injured his knee last August while preparing for a senior campaign that never happened. The 2014 Northwestern season happened without Jones, of course, but it didn’t go well. And his absence could be partially blamed for that. Wildcat receivers and quarterback Trevor Siemian were out of sync all season long.
Finally, Jones is back for his senior year. It’s coming a season later than he thought it would, but he’s back nonetheless. He’s excited, for sure, but his teammates might be even more excited that their No. 1 pass catcher is back in the fold.
“It’s been a learning experience, I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Jones said of his recovery last week during the team’s media day. “I think it’s a lot of things that I’ve learned that I can apply to the field. I’ve had a lot of people to lean on, and I think it’s just going to help me when I get out there.”
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Jones led the Wildcats in receiving in 2012, when they won 10 games and claimed victory in the Gator Bowl, the program’s first bowl win since the 1940s. His 668 receiving yards in 2013 made him one of the Big Ten’s top 10 receivers. He was there for the highest point of the Pat Fitzgerald Era, and he’s been around for back-to-back five-win seasons. His experience, teammates said, has been invaluable in looking to turn 2015 into another season to remember in Evanston.
“I was talking to him the other day. He came out to practice with his helmet and everything, and I was talking to him, it was just like old times back when I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. It was cool to have him back,” super back Dan Vitale said. “Not only just from his playing ability, which is phenomenal, but also from his leadership and that whole standpoint. When people see a guy like him doing well, it brings the whole feeling of the offense up, and it’s good to have a guy like him back.”
And Jones will also be a big-time resource for the team’s new quarterback, whoever it might be. Zack Oliver, Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti are locked in a three-way battle for the starting gig, and whoever wins it will be thrown into the fire with little-to-no game experience. A guy who’s been around forever like Jones will be of enormous help.
“He knows it all. He knows outside-inside, he knows what the running back’s doing. It’s good to have a guy like that, a big pass catcher out there, just a really consistent guy, especially in the receiver room,” Thorson said. “And off the field he’s a leader, he does the right things, he says the right things. So it’s big to have him.”
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“Having Christian back is huge, just having that big body out there at receiver and his leadership,” Oliver said. “He’s been here the longest of anybody. So having him out there being able to teach those young guys where to be and how to run those routes is going to be big for not only me as a quarterback but the whole offense.”
Jones isn’t being allowed to run free quite yet, though. Fitzgerald said that Jones will be on a “pitch count” during fall camp so he can ease into things before the season starts on Sept. 5. It was in fall camp a year ago that Jones was injured and knocked out for the year.
“He knows we’re going to kind of put him on that pitch count, so to speak,” Fitzgerald said. “He is going to be limited by design here early on. And that has nothing to do with anything else than bringing him along. It’s the medical team’s plan, it’s not the coaches’ plan, and we’ll kind of work through that. We go a couple days and he feels great, we’ll let him go a third day. We’ll let his body as we move forward determine where things are at. But just to have him back in the mix. … To bring that element to the practice field, the leadership that he brings and obviously the skill set, it’s great to have someone like him back in the mix.”