'Just watch': Inside Charlie Jones' winding journey to become a starting receiver at Iowa

Iowa wide receiver Charlie Jones probably had a hint early on that a path to major college football might require a different route than it typically did for others. 

No problem. That perfectly fit his make-up. 

"Charlie's always been a gym rat," Steve Winiecki, Jones' head coach at Deerfield High School in Illinois said. "Not just in the weight room but on the field, every weekend on the JUGS machine." 

From high school stardom in Illinois, to getting a Division I shot in upstate New York to now as a starting receiver in the Big Ten, that work ethic has showed at every stop. Once a low-ranked high school prospect, he joined the Hawkeyes as a walk-on in 2019 and earned a scholarship in December 2020.

To some, just earning the scholarship would be the end of the journey — proving you belong in major college football. But those who know Jones best say he's just getting started. 

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"This is not the end of the journey in his mind," Winiecki said. "He wants to be All-Big Ten, All-American, drafted. This is just my perspective but someone's going to tell him he can't because he's too this or that and his response is, 'Just watch.'"

Iowa wide receiver Charlie Jones (16) lines up during spring practice on April 17 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Jones enters this season as one of the most experienced in Iowa’s wide receiver room. But in Year 5 of his college career, he's embracing yet another new challenge.  He was a playmaker for Iowa in 2020 but in a different capacity: a punt returner on special teams. After earning the trust of his coaches and waiting his turn, it’s finally time for Jones to be a key fixture in the Hawkeyes’ 2021 offense.

Currently, he is line to secure one of their key receiver spots. At Iowa’s annual Kids’ Day scrimmage earlier this month, Jones started as one of the outside receiver positions opposite Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini was the slot inside. 

"He bet on himself."

Jones has come quite a long way both figuratively and literally on his journey to starting at Iowa, a college journey that began in 2017 over 750 miles away in Buffalo, New York.

“When it comes to football, he's always been goal-oriented," Winiecki said. "He told me 'Coach, I want to play Division I football and I want to play in the Big Ten.' When it didn't shake out his way during his senior year (of high school), he could've moped and complained. 

"But he said 'OK, this is the best path I'm going to take, and he took that path. And he bet on himself. He says 'Coach, I'm going to give Iowa a shot. I'm going to walk on, I've done my homework and this is where I want to go.'" 

More:Leistikow: 10 thoughts, predictions heading into Iowa's 2021 football season

Jones was a standout throughout his time Deerfield High School, not far from Chicago. He played several positions including cornerback, wide receiver and kick/punt returner. 

But a few things worked against him during the recruiting process: Injuries during his senior year and the offensive philosophy at Deerfield. At that time, they were a run-focused triple-option team that limited Jones' opportunities to showcase his skill at receiver. 

Jones wasn't recruited by Iowa or any Big Ten school during the 2017 cycle. According to his 247sports profile, he only had one offer: Buffalo, where he singed in February 2017. 

Charlie Jones (17) made 18 catches for 395 yards and also averaged 19.3 yards on kickoff returns as a Buffalo freshman.

However, his Big Ten football dream never wavered. But before anything, Jones had to show potential and production within the MAC conference. He redshirted in 2017 and in 2018 was a contributor both on offense and special teams. He 684 total yards (395 receiving) in helping the Bulls reach a 10-4 record.

At the conclusion of the season, Jones eyed a return to the Midwest. 

"He had a great opportunity at Buffalo but I think it gave him a hunger for more," Winiecki said. "And there was no disrespect to Buffalo but he said 'I think I have the ability to get something closer to home and in the Big Ten.' I think he got a taste that showed him that not only does he belong (in Division I football) but he can thrive." 

Through previous relationships with assistant coaches Kelton Copeland and since-departed Tim Polasek, Jones joined Iowa’s team via the transfer portal. However, unlike when he signed at Buffalo, Jones joined the Hawkeyes as a walk-on. 

Finding ways to contribute for Iowa

Iowa’s program is known for their walk-on-to-scholarship player pipeline. But to do that, he needed to show improvement at receiver. He sat out all 2019 as a transfer and worked behind players like NFL rookies Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith and teammates Ragaini and Tracy.

Some days were better than others. But that year, he learned a valuable lesson.

“Confidence in this sport is everything,” Jones said. “It’s easy to have confidence but it’s tough when you’re not playing well and that’s something that as I’ve gotten older I had to learn: That today is a new day and to have confidence in myself and the way I prepare.”

Entering the 2020 season Jones was eligible to play but the four aforementioned receivers returned as well. Because of depth, Jones would still have to wait to make an impact at his position. However, he found an opportunity to contribute in another way.

And it just so happened to be in a role in which he thrived before.

“I came out to practice every day and did as much as I could at receiver,” Jones said. “But I knew a way to get my foot in the door was special teams. Every time I went out there, every time I went back for a punt, I was trying to change the game, try to make a big play.”

Jones made his splash in what turned out to be a defining game in Iowa’s season. Against Michigan State on Nov. 7, Jones scored on a 56-yard punt return touchdown and had another return of 31 yards that led to another Iowa touchdown. The Hawkeyes won the game 49-7 and Jones was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. At that time, they were 0-2 and that rout was the first of a six-game winning streak to end the season.

On the year, Jones earned All-Big Ten honors as a return specialist and was awarded a scholarship in December.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz likens Jones to another NFL rookie: Tennessee Titans running back Mehki Sargant.

“(Mehki) still played an integral role in our running attack but the way he embraced his special teams role," Ferentz said of the former Hawkeye back. "Reflective of his attitude but he just wanted to go help the team win and I think we're seeing that from a lot of our guys.

"That's a part of our DNA. If we're going to be team that's serious about playing well then we need guys on our special teams. It starts with attitude: you have to want to be out there and if you have the requisite ability, and Charlie does, then it's all positive for us."

Playing his way into the starting lineup

Jones' attitude got him on the field and his play caught his coaches' eyes like he hoped. Now the challenge is to translate his playmaking ability at punt returner to receiver and help the receiving core replace the production it lost from last season.

After making a splash at returner last season, that confidence has continued into this offseason. It's not gone unnoticed — his teammates expect a breakthrough season as well.  

"Charlie has done a phenomenal job," Tracy said. "Every day, he comes in and takes another step forward. Obviously you're going to have days you're not doing as well as others but he takes that to heart and comes back even harder. 

"I think he has a great opportunity ahead of him to take strides and let the world know his name and I think he'll do it as a returner and a receiver." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com