MIAMI -- A month ago, Larry Jones wasn't planning on playing much in last night's Federal Express Orange Bowl. Even after Miami fullback Stephen McGuire sustained a season-ending knee injury five weeks ago against Boston College, Jones knew he was still No. 2 on the depth chart.
And then McGuire's replacement, Martin Patton, was arrested for credit-card fraud.
"I was out taking a test that day, and I came by the football office and Coach [Dennis Erickson] asked me if I heard anything about Martin," Jones recalled earlier this week. "I was shocked when I was told about it. Then Coach told me that I would be starting in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska."
Though the top-ranked Hurricanes (12-0) knew what they had in Jones, a star was born against the Cornhuskers. In last night's 22-0 victory over Nebraska, the redshirt freshman from Gainesville, Fla., ran for 144 yards on 30 carries and scored a touchdown to be named the game's Most Valuable Player. It was the most yards by a Miami player in a bowl game.
There was a touch of irony to Jones' first collegiate start, of course. Three years ago, one game into his senior year of high school, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The injury required major reconstructive surgery.
It also scared off most of the major college scouts.
"Florida State backed off, and Florida was there off and on," Jones said earlier this week. "I went to Florida [in Gainesville] on a visit, but I didn't feel totally comfortable there. I came here and I liked the atmosphere right away. I knew they had a lot of backs, but I was going to fit in."
After redshirting last season, and playing in spots through the first two games this season, Jones got a significant opportunity when McGuire was injured against Oklahoma State on Oct. 5. He rushed 10 times for 96 yards, but went to the bench when McGuire returned the following week.
Jones got to play mop-up duty in a 55-0 rout of Long Beach State, scoring his first collegiate touchdown on a 32-yard run. After that, his workload became more steady: 55 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown against Arizona, seven carries for 38 yards against West Virginia.
But it was in Miami's biggest regular-season game this year, a 17-16 upset of the then No. 1 Florida State Seminoles, that Jones made his biggest play to date. With a little more than three minutes left, Jones scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run. Jones showed his maturity by not wildly celebrating in the end zone.
"I think that was a good indication of what kind of young man Larry is," said Erickson.
Said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski: "Larry Jones showed the Florida State game that he is capable of making big plays. He is capable of having big games. We feel that Larry Jones is going to be a great player for us in the future and we hope he's a great player come Wednesday night."
He was. After a sluggish start, Jones started to get into the flow late in the first quarter. By the beginning of the second half, the 6-foot-2, 235 pounder was using his 4.5 speed and brute strength to bowl over Nebraska's defense.
"I started becoming more aware of where my blockers were coming and where the defensive guys were," said Jones."After I started going, I felt no one could stop me."
By the time he had finished, Jones had made most forget about McGuire's injury, Patton's suspension and the previous bowl record of 119 yards set by former Hurricane star Alonzo Highsmith in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Jones didn't even think about the fleet footsteps in which he was following.
"I don't feel the pressure," he said. "The more work I get, the better I feel. "
Despite Jones' relative inexperience, his teammates have confidence in him. "It's always like this at Miami, if one player gets hurt, another one is ready to step up," said senior center Kelvin Harris. "You just put another bullet in the cylinder and shoot the gun. And Larry is one big bullet."
Said quarterback Gino Torretta: "I don't see any weakness with Larry back there. He has all the tools to become a great player."
He might have become one last night.