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Analysis: Hawkeye newcomer Charlie Jones shows how valuable an elusive punt returner can be

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Football teams don’t go into games expecting to score touchdowns on punt returns. They certainly don’t expect to give one up, either.

So when Iowa newcomer Charlie Jones gathered a line-drive punt at his 46-yard line Saturday, made a cut to his left and headed toward the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium, his sideline started pulsating in anticipation while Michigan State’s stared in disbelief. Jones split two Spartan would-be tacklers inside the 20, picked up one final block from Jestin Jacobs and avoided getting pushed out of bounds before sprinting all the way to the wall, where he was greeted by a sea of empty seats instead of the deafening roar of normal years.

It was the first touchdown of Jones’ Hawkeye career, in his third game as the team’s punt returner. It didn’t earn him a scholarship just yet. But it certainly signaled that Iowa had put a stranglehold on what became a 49-7 victory.

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Jones’ touchdown made the lead 28-0, so it might be tempting to dismiss its significance. But it did come during a stretch of the second quarter in which the Iowa offense had three consecutive drives that failed to produce a first down. And it was followed immediately by a pass that Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi forced into coverage, which cornerback Riley Moss picked off and turned into his own 54-yard score.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about in meetings,” Jones said of how game-changing a special-teams touchdown can be. “It definitely brings a ton of energy to the sideline.”

Iowa hadn’t scored on a punt return since Kyle Groeneweg did so two years ago.

But here’s a more revealing statistic about the impact of Jones: He gained 105 yards on his five returns Saturday; Iowa had 121 yards on 15 returns in the entire 2019 season. Jones now has 10 returns for 150 yards in 2020.

“It’s just taking a risk, I guess,” Jones shrugged when asked what makes him so skilled at returning punts. “I think on some of them, I could fair-catch them, but I take a little bit of a risk and try to make something out of nothing.”

Players on Iowa's sideline get ready to celebrate as Charlie Jones sprints into the open field on a second-quarter punt return for a touchdown Saturday. Jones, a walk-on transfer from Buffalo, gained 105 yards on five punt returns in a 49-7 win over Michigan State.

Jones also had a 31-yard return Saturday that set Iowa’s offense up at the Michigan State 47-yard line. That led to the third touchdown of the game.

Jones is a native of Deerfield, Illinois, who played his first college season at Buffalo, on a scholarship. As a freshman, he returned 15 punts for 289 yards, with no touchdowns. But he’s also a wide receiver, and he added 18 catches for 395 yards and three scores.

Jones wanted to get closer to his family. So he entered the transfer portal. He chose to be a Hawkeye, even though it meant being a walk-on and sitting out the 2019 season.

“I wanted to play against the best of the best. I knew that’s the Big Ten. They do that every week,” Jones said.

He knew two coaches on Iowa’s staff because they had tried to recruit him to their previous universities — Tim Polasek at North Dakota State and Kelton Copeland at Northern Illinois. That helped Jones make his decision.

There was also this: “I knew this was a program where you could really work your way up, just with hard work,” Jones said.

Iowa junior receiver and punt returner Charlie Jones runs the ball in the third quarter against Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

Iowa’s assistant coaches were instantly intrigued by what the 6-foot, 187-pound Jones could bring to the team. Head coach Kirk Ferentz was warier. He wouldn’t believe it until he saw Jones in an actual game.

Ferentz believes now.

“I haven't had an anxious moment with him back there,” he said. “I just feel really good with him back there fielding, good judgment, good ball skills, and what he showed (Saturday) I think was really what some of our guys, offensive guys especially, thought.”

Jones hasn’t caught a pass at Iowa yet. But he did run twice Saturday on what Iowa calls “fly” plays. Those netted 38 yards, making him the team’s second-leading rusher behind Tyler Goodson. In contrast, the Hawkeyes’ leading receiver was Tyrone Tracy Jr. … with 38 yards.

Ferentz said Jones will get more opportunities on offense as the season goes along.

But, about that scholarship …

“We'll do it when it's appropriate. I'm a big believer in earning things, I guess,” Ferentz said.

“He certainly made big steps (Saturday), that's for sure. If his agent contacts me tomorrow, we'll talk about it and see where it all goes.”

Jones claimed not to be stressed about it.

“I’m going to keep working hard, and if that comes, then great,” he said.

There’s little question that Jones has already proven worthy of the investment.

Here’s one more stat: Iowa’s offense outgained Michigan State’s by 119 yards Saturday.

Jones outgained the Spartans’ punt returner by 105.

That’s a lot of valuable field position. And six pretty important points from one unexpected source.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.