Northwestern stuck by Christian Jones during a tough time, and that perseverance is shaping up as a mutually beneficial decision.
Jones was a highly-regarded wide receiver prospect out of Houston who had several scholarship offers after his junior year of high school, including ones from Arkansas, Texas Tech and other BCS programs. But during spring practice before his senior year, he tore his right ACL in a one-on-one drill.
"The coaches told me I should hold back and not do too much, but my competitive nature wouldn't let me," he said. "I ran a circle route a little too hard, and came out of my break really fast. My knee just popped out of place. It was bad."
Bad enough that it scared most of the big schools away from recruiting Jones. Many pulled their scholarship offers off the table. But not Northwestern.
"They told me they'd always hold up their end of the deal even if somebody got injured," Jone said. "That really stuck with me."
So Jones committed to the Wildcats that summer and then made a speedy recovery, playing his senior season just five months after his ACL surgery. Though he didn't produce at a high level that year, he arrived in Evanston feeling 100 percent healthy, and he made an immediate impact on the field as a true freshman in 2011.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder earned a starting job midway through the season and finished the year with 16 catches for 195 yards. That included a 39-yard grab versus Michigan.
This spring, Jones is looking to become a much bigger contributor. He has moved inside to the slot receiver position, which Jeremy Ebert held down the past two years. Ebert had over 2,000 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns the last two seasons combined, so his graduation leaves a large void in the offense. Someone has to pick up the slack; perhaps that someone will be Jones, who's still learning the finer points of the game.
"I've developed more as a technical receiver," he said. "I realized last year that everything isn't based off speed and athleticism. You have to be better at your technique then they are, so I'm working on becoming a better route runner, a better cutter and more of a student of the game.
"[Moving inside], I actually have to learn how to read defenses now and how to play on the fly."
Jones should have plenty of company at the receiver spot, with Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones among the veterans returning. USC transfer Kyle Prater is scheduled to enroll later this month and go through some late spring practices as he awaits word from the NCAA whether he can play the 2012 season for Northwestern.
"As a whole, we want to be greatly respected as receivers," Jones said. "I think we'll spread the ball out a lot more this season. We all have a great passion and a great feel for the game. Kyle has a great mind and a great build, and I think he'll fit into our group well."
Jones has been a good fit so far with Northwestern and vice versa. Loyalty has its rewards.