Nov. 3, 1999
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - As the 1996 football season came to a close, Tiki Barber concluded the final chapter of his storybook career at the University of Virginia. Barber walked off the collegiate gridiron for the last time as the all-time leading rusher in school history. While many Cavalier fans felt his unbelievable accomplishment would stand untouched for several years to come, Barber saw a special talent that rivaled his own in a young freshman running back by the name of Thomas Jones. Barber knew all too well his legendary career rushing record could some day fall to the hardworking tailback from Big Stone Gap, Virginia. For Jones, it served as an unbelievable compliment knowing that Barber had such strong faith in his ability.
"I felt good knowing he had confidence in me, and that he knew I was a good back," said Jones. "Luckily, I was just blessed enough over the past couple of years to be able to have good seasons and put up some big numbers to be at this point now."
Three years later, Barber's bold prediction that Jones would one day break his school record still rings in the ears of Virginia fans. Entering tonight's game against the Florida State Seminoles, Jones needs only 81 yards to break Barber's all-time school rushing record of 3389 yards. The senior wearing number six already ranks with Barber as the only other running back in school history to rush for over 1000 yards in two consecutive seasons. Jones takes great pride in the fact he has lived up to Barber's expectations and become one of the best in a program known for its potent running attack.
"Considering the fact that before he left, Tiki said I would break his record--to fulfill that prophecy feels really good," said Jones. "Running backs play a big part in Virginia's offense, and we've had some great running backs [in the past]. To be able to break the all-time school rushing record makes me feel good."
Jones displayed his first flashes of stardom as a freshman backup tailback (behind Barber) when he rushed for 67 yards and one touchdown in the 1996 Carquest Bowl. After rushing for 692 yards his sophomore year, Jones erupted in 1998, accumulating over 1300 yards for the season. Posting the third-highest single-season rushing total in school history, Jones finished last year ranked first in the ACC and 11th in the country in rushing.
Jones entered the 1999 season stronger, nearly 10 pounds heavier, and determined to build off of his successful '98 campaign. After last year's explosive season, Jones has returned in '99 as a more consistent runner, raising his rushing average by 40 yards per game over last season. His 158 yards per game ranks second in the nation, and for the second straight season he leads the ACC in rushing. With four regular season games still remaining in his collegiate career, Jones has already begun carving his name in the record books. His 32 career rushing touchdowns breaks Barber's previous school record of 31, and his four career 200 yard rushing performances represent the most in ACC history.
It has been an extremely special season for Jones, and his success at Virginia represents the highpoint of his football career. "To be able to get the number of yards that I have gotten is a really big accomplishment for me," said Jones. "It's just a great feeling to be able to come into a major college football program and make an impact."
Throughout the season, opponents have taken extra measures to shut down Jones. He knows his continued success comes only with the help of his teammates. Even though he enters each game as a marked man, he attributes the hard work of Virginia's front five as a main reason why teams continue to have trouble stopping him.
"Our offensive line has done a really good job this year. I hide behind them, and a lot of times teams can't find me because our offensive line is so big," said Jones. "It feels really good to go out and put up big numbers, especially when teams put eight and nine guys around the ball. To still come out and get big yards is a confidence builder for me."
After a stellar first three seasons, Jones has once again answered the call and put together another wonderful year in 1999. He has led the way all season long for the Cavaliers and is looking forward to a solid performance in tonight's matchup with number-one ranked Florida State. Though the school's all-time career rushing record is well within striking distance, Jones' primary foucus is helping the team to victory.
"We have a tough game against Florida State, and my main thing is to go out there, play hard, and do everything I can so that we can win the game," said Jones. "Hopefully, the record will come tonight, but if not, hopefully it will come some other time."
For his predecessor and mentor Barber, tonight represents a three-year-old prophecy come true. For Jones, the first game of the season's final home stand represents the initial step towards the close of his collegiate career. Playing football at Virginia has served as a wonderful experience for Jones, and he takes great pride in the fact he could be such a valuable part of the program.
"It's meant a lot for me to be here. Virginia is a great school, and I have made a lot of good friends here," said Jones. "I think I have had a good career, and I have been satisfied with the way our team has done. I'm just happy I was able to come here and contribute."