NU's Jones glad he put football first

Northwestern running back Tyris Jones scored a touchdown against South Dakota this season. Jerry Lai/US Presswire

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern running back Tyris Jones admits he had no idea what he was doing as a freshman when he packed his schedule with extracurricular activities.

Jones joined the student senate, For Members Only (the school’s black student alliance), Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and still had to worry about classes and playing football on a daily basis.

“Me and coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) always joke about comparing sleep -- who gets more sleep between him and I,” Jones said.

But as much as Jones made an impact on campus with all of his doings, his play on the football field suffered due to it. He was a scout team player, and it didn’t appear as if he was going to be anything more if he continued his hectic schedule.

Jones came to that realization, too, and had made to make a couple difficult decisions.

“As a walk-on and as somebody who wasn’t highly recruited, I just didn’t know,” Jones said after a recent practice. “I knew I had to have great grades. I knew to get a good job after college. I was going to have to have a great résumé. Giving back to the community was real important to me. They were all things that were real important to me.

“And I kind of placed them at the same level as football, not knowing how big of a commitment college football was. And as the years went on, it became more and more clear, OK, you have to make some sacrifices. You can’t take that next step without giving something up.”

Jones opted to devote himself to football and began reducing his time spent on other activities. Now as Jones, a senior, approaches the final home game of his career on Saturday, he’s confident he made the right decision.

The reward has been going from a walk-on and scout team player to becoming a scholarship player and receiving playing time in the team’s biggest games.

“You get me to the place where I am now, where over the past two or three years football has been my No. 1 priority,” Jones said. “So you’ll have my family, school and football comes right after that. When you take on that mindset, the coaches really recognize, and I think it’s led to an increased role.”

Through that process, Jones has become one of Fitzgerald’s most beloved players.

“Tyris is going to go down as one of my favorites of all-time,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it starts with his care. He’s got great care and concern for a lot of things.

“I think initially in his career he was all over the place. So active on campus and football, ‘Oh, shoot, I have to go to class.’ Just all over the place and spread maybe a little bit too thin. And now as his career has unfolded, he’s earned his roles, but then he hasn’t been satisfied. He’s wanted more. If there hasn’t been more, he’s had a great attitude about it.”

Before Jones was given the opportunity this season to contribute, he had to work his way up the ladder, and that meant impressing the coaches on the scout team.

Jones took his role seriously and saw it as a way to not only improve himself, but also his teammates. Sometimes, that also meant blowing up his teammates with a hit.

“I want to take every opportunity I have to get better, and so if that means I’m going to try to run over this guy even though he may not like that, I’m going to try to run him over,” Jones said. “I’m bettering myself. I’m trying to take that extra step to get that much better. I wanted the coaches to recognize that I was trying to push our defense.”

The coaches noticed. He was named special teams practice player of the week vs. Minnesota during his redshirt season, the offensive practice player of the week vs. Illinois as a redshirt freshman and a team-high offensive practice player of the week three times as a sophomore vs. Illinois State, Minnesota and Michigan State.

Then as a junior, Jones was promoted for the first time. He made a short-yardage running back and rushed for 69 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries.

Following the season, Fitzgerald told Jones he had earned a scholarship for his senior year.

“You set your goals out and it’s just you realize your goal,” Jones said of the scholarship. “As a walk-on, I came here with the mindset of proving to myself I could play Division I football, that I have that talent. It’s something I knew, but it feels good to have coaches who this is their life, this is their job, say they kind of solidify that by giving me a scholarship or at least solidify the fact they appreciate the work that I’ve done while I was here.”

The scholarship further motivated Jones, and he dedicated himself to football more than ever in the offseason. He worked out more. He spent more time with his offensive teammates. He asked more questions. He watched more football.

Jones credits all that extra dedication to why he’s been a blocking back, was given the ball four times in a win against Michigan State, blocked a punt and was the team’s special teams player of the week against Iowa and scored his second career touchdown against South Dakota this season.

“I catch better,” Jones said. “I run better. I’m faster. I’m more knowledgeable of the game. It might not necessarily have translated into a starting position, but I think people have definitely recognized the difference between me now, last year and two years ago. It’s really night and day.”

Fitzgerald witnessed that against Michigan State.

“Last Saturday, a couple guys banged up, and it’s his turn to pick up the flag, and he ran with some attitude,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s been protecting really well on third-down situations when everybody in the building knows we have to throw it. He’s done a good job. I’m really proud of him.”

Jones doesn’t mind patting himself on the back either for what’s been a memorable college career. He does sometimes miss running around campus as he did in his early years, but he plans to do that in his future by getting into politics and education policies.

“The thing is when you love everything you’re doing, it’s kind of hard to stop doing those things,” Jones said. “It’s crazy how I’ve grown to love football that much more. You enjoy the grind. You embrace that grind.

“It’s been a long five years. It seems like five years. And there’s been a lot that’s happened in my time here. It’s like a sigh of relief to have made it through. It’s like a real big accomplishment.”