Central Catholic (Modesto) star Craig Jones was one of the best two-way players in California during his senior year. Jones rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and scored 19 touchdowns on offense, while making 91 tackles and forcing two fumbles on defense.
Yet Jones, who grew up a Stanford fan, initially questioned whether he had the ability to follow in the footsteps of childhood favorites like Owen Marecic and Toby Gerhart.
Stanford wasn’t among the schools interested in Jones when his recruitment began to pick up steam late in his junior year – Ivy League schools paid him the most attention. Jones went on an East Coast school tour over spring break of his junior year, and eventually settled on a few favorites: Princeton, Yale, Cornell and Harvard.
“I didn’t think playing at Stanford’s level honestly was going to be a reality so I was kind of concentrating more on the Ivy Leagues,” Jones said.
But after Jones camped with Stanford in the summer before his senior season, the Cardinal’s interest picked up. Then-Stanford linebackers coach Jason Tarver began to increase his communication with Jones, and the sides grew increasingly familiar with one another.
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It didn’t take much convincing for Jones to shift his focus from the Ivies to Stanford.
“I just kind of slowly drifted away from wanting to go back east to kind of concentrated fully on going to school at Stanford,” Jones said.
Sometime in October, Stanford indicated to Jones that they wanted him to join the team as a walk-on. In turn, Jones made it abundantly clear that if a spot on the team was available and he was able to get admitted to Stanford, he was 100 percent Cardinal.
So once Jones received news of his admission to Stanford late last year, he wasted little time in committing.
“I had been extremely transparent with them that if I got in I was their guy, I was going to be there 100 percent,” Jones said. “I called Coach Tarver and I emailed [Assistant AD/Director of Football Administration Mike] Eubanks the same day as I got in and re-affirmed that fact that I was definitely going to be there for them and be a willing participating and member of the football team.”
In selecting Stanford over several appealing Ivy League options, Jones chose the option of starting at the bottom of the depth chart at Stanford over being a heralded recruit at a smaller football school.
“I’m not one of those guys that wants to go to a small football school just so I can be the big fish in a small pond,” Jones said. “I’m willing to be challenged and I think that’s how I’m going to develop not only as a football player but as a person. I looked at it as no school in the Ivy League is ever going to compete for the National Championship, ever. And Stanford will.
“And I would absolutely hate to graduate, even if it was from Harvard, in four years, and have to watch Stanford in the national championship knowing that I could have been on that team. I couldn’t live with myself if that happened.”
Stanford’s well-chronicled recent history of utilizing walk-ons didn’t hurt the Cardinal’s cause, either. Former walk-on receiver Ryan Whalen was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 NFL Draft, while walk-on Griff Whalen was signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent just last month.
“It definitely made me feel a lot more comfortable,” Jones said. “I wasn’t not going to do that if they had not had success with walk-ons, but it made me feel a lot more comfortable. It made me feel like I could definitely be a contributor, not just a contributor, but a playmaker, and one of their go-to guys. It really did make me feel more comfortable with the situation.”
Jones played both running back and linebacker in high school, but is being recruited by Stanford as a middle linebacker/special teams ace.
Although breaking through Stanford’s linebacker depth chart early in his Cardinal career may be an uphill battle, the 6-foot, 215-pounder is optimistic about making an early impact on Stanford’s special teams.
“Their words have been that they see me helping out early on special teams,” Jones said. “They told me when I went to the team meetings to focus especially on punt and kickoff. That’s the indication they’ve given me, and I’m certainly going to work hard at it.”
When he arrives on campus, Jones will be working closely with Stanford’s two newest coaches – David Kotulski and Pete Alamar – at linebacker and on special teams, respectively. Although Jones had developed a strong rapport with the departed Tarver, he’s excited about working with the Cardinal’s new coaches.
“I visited a lot during spring break to practices and meetings and sat in with film review with Coach Kotulski,” Jones said. “He’s very similar to my high school coach, very old school, bare-knuckles, kind of just great football. I like him, he’s a really funny guy. ”
“Coach Alamar is actually the recruiter for my area now, he’s recruiting one of the juniors at my school so he’s been around campus a couple of times so I’ve been able to talk to him and sit in on special teams meetings with him. He’ll light a fire under your pants, so I’m very happy with the replacements that they found, I think they’re excellent coaches.”
Unlike most of Stanford’s other walk-ons who won’t arrive on The Farm until the start of fall camp in August, Jones plans to participate in the player-led workouts beginning in June. Jones will either commute from Modesto to Palo Alto to participate in the workouts, or he’ll live in an off-campus apartment so that he can get a head start on his Cardinal career.
“I’m going to be out there in June for the player-run practices,” said Jones, who plans to major in Management, Science and Engineering. “Those are open and I can go to those. Obviously I can’t participate in the weigh rom stuff, but films and the open team run practices I’m going to participate in, I’m close enough to where it’s going to be possible for me to make those.”
Jones is eager to begin the next stage of his football and personal development and excited about the numerous challenges playing football at Stanford will present.
“It’s always about the next level in life,” Jones said. “You start at the junior varsity and then you go to the next level, the varsity. I want to be the best at the next level so I’m really excited to not be the best when I show up and to be able to fight because at my high school it’s a very small school, I’ve been the best player all four years. Not to be braggadocios but I have. I’m really looking forward to not being the best middle linebacker, not being the best special teams player, so I can get better because I enjoy getting better. And it’s hard to get better when you’re already at the front. At Stanford I’m going to be middle of the pack and I’m really looking forward to being surrounded by guys that are better than me in the classroom, better than me on the football field.”
When Jones and his fellow 2012 classmates take the field in early September against San Jose State, they’ll join the rest of the Cardinal in trying to maintain the program’s standing among the elites of college football. Jones is ready to help shoulder that responsibility.
“I know a lot of the scholarship guys and we all see it the same way,” Jones said. “We want to prove that we do deserve the hype that we’ve been getting and we want to prove that it wasn’t a freak thing that Harbaugh and Luck and all of those amazing players weren’t the only reason that we are a great college and that we are going to be a great team and that we are going to achieve a lot of success. It means a lot. I love the pressure and I think it’s’ a worthwhile challenge to show the whole country that one of the best schools academically is going to be a contender for the best school on the football field. And I think that’s the epitome of what our country should look at right now.”