Too young? Yellow Jackets sophomore Jones passes all the tests CITRUS BOWL Georgia Tech vs Nebraska

December 30, 1990|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Bobby Ross announced before the 1989 season that a redshirt freshman would start at quarterback for Georgia Tech, those who had followed his coaching career at Maryland figured either one of two things.

Ross was woefully thin at quarterback.

Or Shawn Jones was special.

"We had a couple of other people, but Shawn clearly won the job," recalled Ross, who had future pros Frank Reich and Neil O'Donnell wait a long time for their chances at Maryland. "He was a tremendous competitor for a guy that young."

When Jones started his career 4-for-29 passing against North Carolina State, some wondered whether Ross had rushed him into the job. Nobody is wondering anymore.

Georgia Tech (10-0-1) will take a 15-game unbeaten streak into ++ Tuesday's Florida Citrus Bowl against Nebraska (9-2), and the success of the second-ranked Yellow Jackets is due largely to their quarterback.

"He has shown tremendous poise," said Ross. "He has the ability to rise to the occasion."

Just ask Clemson. Last season, in his first trip into Death Valley, Jones led the Yellow Jackets, 20-point underdogs, to a 30-14 victory. He completed 15 of 25 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns.

Or Virginia. Earlier this season, Jones helped Georgia Tech upset the top-ranked, unbeaten Cavaliers, 41-38, in Charlottesville. Jones went 17-for-29 for 257 yards, ran for 52 yards and accounted for four touchdowns.

"He was there before that game," said Ross. "But I think that game helped him get some national attention."

Jones, the Atlantic Coast Conference's Rookie of the Year in 1989, said: "I think I had the confidence before that [Virginia] game. I think it was last year's Clemson game that showed to me I could play at this level."

Asked about his debut at Georgia Tech, Jones said he can remember it only vaguely. But he was quick to add, "I guess you could say it was a nightmare."

Though he is still somewhat inconsistent, Jones seems to have adjusted to Ross' complex offensive scheme.

A year ago, Jones was more of a running quarterback, who, on occasion, could throw. Now he is apt to do either well and has become a better passer (more than 2,000 yards this season) than his coaches had imagined possible.

"It took me all of my freshman year to be totally comfortable," said Jones, who ran a wishbone offense in high school. "I now know what is supposed to be going on with the offense."

And with his life. During the summer before his sophomore year in high school, Jones decided that he had played enough football. A 150-pound defensive back, Jones wanted to concentrate on basketball.

But when his brother Mike (now a Georgia defensive back) had put the pads back on at Thomasville (Ga.) High School later that summer, Jones became tired of sitting around. He returned for the season and eventually grew into a 6-foot-1, 200-pound all-state quarterback.

It was his performance on the basketball court that first attracted Georgia Tech. Ross, who looks for his quarterbacks to have what he calls "evade-ability," got a positive scouting report from assistant coach Pat Watson.

"He had great quickness and great hand-eye coordination," said Ross. "I knew Shawn was a real good athlete, but we didn't know how he'd handle the passing game. We didn't know how well he'd handle the mental aspects of the game right away. He hasn't exceeded where we thought he'd be as an athlete, but he has exceeded what we thought he'd be as a quarterback and a leader."

Granted, Jones has been blessed with a great group of receivers, led by National Collegiate Athletic Association sprint champion Emmett Merchant, All-ACC tight end Tom Covington and an above-average offensive line. But his ability to dance out of trouble on one play and throw downfield on the next has put Jones in good company.

"He's a little bit like [Virginia quarterback] Shawn Moore," said Ross. "But at this stage of his career, he's a little ahead of what Moore was at Virginia."

Nebraska defensive backfield coach George Darlington said: "He reminds us of the best quarterback we've had here in 18 years, Turner Gill. He's a great passer, a great runner and a great leader."

Jones has helped Georgia Tech win 14 of its past 15 games, with only a 13-13 tie against North Carolina separating the Yellow Jackets from a perfect season. A victory over Nebraska could bring Jones and his teammates the respect they say hasn't come.

"If we win this game, everyone would know we're for real," he said.

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