Jones adds dimension to NU offense

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The number caught Tony Jones off-guard.

Told what one of his fastest reported 40-yard dash times was, Jones raised his eyebrows and interrupted a question to make sure he was hearing correctly.

"A 4.2?" Jones said, pleasantly surprised. "That's crazy. I'd say 4.3 or 4.4 range."

The fact that Jones can comfortably speak about not-so-modest times is telling.

A Northwestern career slowed by shoulder and knee injuries during its first three years has given way to one of the Big Ten's best seasons so far, with Jones placing third in the league in both catches per game (6) and receiving yards per game (90.5). With Venric Mark sidelined for most of the nonconference season, Jones has emerged as the No. 16 Wildcats' biggest playmaker so far, one they are counting on heading into Saturday night's home showdown with No. 4 Ohio State.

Jones is relishing the chance to face Buckeye All-America corner Bradley Roby. His inner circle has left him with little choice but to embrace it head-on, flooding his phone with text messages this week to remind him that this matchup could be a measuring stick.

"Everyone," Jones said with a smile, "family, friends, just everyone's been on me about, 'You've got a great opportunity this week. Just go out there and play your game.' "

That game has been much easier for Jones to play now that he is at full strength.

A broken collarbone cost him the first four games of his college career in 2010. He then announced his arrival with a 45-yard touchdown catch at Minnesota on his first play. His 11 catches for 157 yards marked signs of his promise, but a knee injury in the week leading up to the 2011 opener forced him to put on the brakes and redshirt, a campaign he has referred to as a blessing in disguise.

"It happened right away," receivers coach Dennis Springer said of Jones' attitude. "When we discussed with coach [Pat Fitzgerald] and with Tony and his family what we thought was best for him, they jumped right on board and allowed him to get stronger in the weight room and allowed him to stand back and really learn our offense from the perspective of just being a student of the game, and he embraced it.

"That shows a lot of maturity on his part, and I think how important he feels this team is to him."

After leading the team with four touchdown catches in 2012, Jones has broken out this fall. His 362 receiving yards have already topped last year's total, and he has reached the end zone three times.

The Flint, Mich., native attributes the early success to a combination of health and maturity that has renewed his confidence.

"I feel fast, I feel healthy," Jones said. "Obviously at this point in the season everyone's legs are getting heavy. But I've been doing a great job taking care of my body. I definitely learned a lot about taking care of my body since I was a freshman. You learn you can't just come out here, expect to run around every day without really stretching and ice-tubbing and all that stuff that you see the older guys doing, and you think that [you] don't really need to do that stuff."

Mark will return from his leg injury Saturday, adding another dimension to an offense that has three different players with at least 200 rushing yards and three more with at least 11 catches.

Jones leads that group with 24 grabs, proving to be a more-than-capable playmaker when called upon.

"I think he's playing as good of football as any receiver in this league, and working really hard," Fitzgerald said. "And that's all we can ask of him -- do your best, and that's what he's given us, so we're thankful for that."