KNOXVILLE -- Most times, it's not terribly difficult to gauge Gerald Jones' mood.
Just watch him. You'll spot it in a few seconds.
It's not that hard to uncover his thoughts on any topic, either.
Just ask him. He'll tell you for several minutes.
The University of Tennessee's No. 1 receiver is also arguably the team's top talker.
Jones rarely relies on the filter that turns matter-of-fact thoughts into politically correct words. He generally says what he thinks -- to anyone at any time -- and he's generally respected enough to get away with it.
"I get excited," Jones said earlier this season. "I just love this game, and I love competing and winning, so I get really happy when we're doing well and really mad when we're not.
"I probably ... no, I definitely get too excited sometimes, and I say or do something I shouldn't. But I'm just a really competitive guy."
Jones is the only known Volunteer to pipe back at Lane Kiffin and stay in the first-year head coach's good graces. He's the team's lone offensive player brave enough to consistently trash-talk star safety Eric Berry on the practice field -- going so far as to slam dunk the ball over the crossbar after beating Berry for a preseason practice touchdown.
"Off the field, we're really cool, and we hang out together and stuff," Berry said. "But on the field, we feel like it's our duty basically to make each other better, because he knows that no one's going to take it easy on me when we play Georgia or a team like Alabama. So when we go out on the field, he tries to break me off, and he's going to talk smack about it when he does it.
"That's probably the best thing. I feel like he should get a lot of credit for my success."
If Jones continues his mid-season surge, he'll start getting credit for his own achievements.
Jones hasn't developed into the same consistently-stellar performer as Berry, despite enrolling with a resume (and heaping helping of hype) that closely resembled Berry's.
Both were prolific running quarterbacks and state high school players of the year -- Jones in Oklahoma, and Berry in Georgia. The two have similar physiques, though Jones is a tad taller, and Berry is a tad thicker. Berry is faster, but Jones, when healthy, has better lateral movement.
Only Berry has become an All-American, though. Jones, for myriad reasons, still hasn't cracked the career 1,000-yard mark for total offense.
"Things don't always work out like you planned," Jones said. "But I'm not done yet. I've got time to become the player I know I can be."
Jones immediately impressed Kiffin and his coaching staff in spring practice, but he needed wrist surgery early in the summer. He toughed through the recuperating wrist in preseason camp, making several big plays despite spending most days in a cast, but he suffered a high ankle sprain late in camp and limped -- and occasionally pouted -- through UT's first four games.
"I wouldn't say I wasn't hungry enough," Jones said Wednesday. "I just wasn't really involved in the offense enough. I was really more down on myself and wondering like, 'What's going on?' And, 'Why am I not doing this or that?'
"Coach Kiffin said something like, 'Gerald's not 100 percent. He'll tell you he's 100 percent, but he's not.' Well, I actually remember watching that on television, and I got defensive. I was like, 'Yeah, I am 100 percent.' But I really wasn't, even though I was telling myself that I was."
Jones said his health issues boiled over into other problems -- dropped passes, missed hot routes, whiffed blocks, verbal spats -- and he'd had enough after UT's 26-22 loss to Auburn on Oct. 3. Jones tied his career high with seven receptions and set a new standard with 75 yards, but he also made mistakes that hurt the final outcome.
"I really hate losing, and we should have won that game," he said.
Jones dejectedly walked into wide receiver coach Frank Wilson's office the next afternoon and offered an odd solution.
"Be harder on me that you are any other receiver on this squad," the player said, "because I'm going to get better. I'm going to stay after practice, and I'm going to do extra work, and I'm going to get better.
Staff File Photo by D. Patrick Harding
Tennessee’s Gerald Jones (4) has broken out of his early season slump and is leading a rejuvinated Vols team into Saturday’s game against No. 1 Alabama.
"It's going to show. I guarantee you that."
So far, so good. Jones smashed his career high Saturday with 105 yards and two touchdowns in UT's 45-19 route of Georgia.
Jones would have stolen more headlines had Saturday not also been much-maligned senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton's best career performance. The receiver responded to a second-quarter drop by snagging a 6-yard score on the next play, and he put away the game with a 51-yard touchdown on a slick double move late in the third quarter.
"Gerald's one of our stars," Vols junior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "He's a very good player, and you can tell he's getting healthy, 100 percent, with his lame leg.
"With him healthy, the offense is more dynamic and more powerful."
It's also a more confident group with Jones in the fold, freshman receiver Nu'Keese Richardson said.
"Gerald Jones, he's a special player -- and he's back now at 100 percent," Richardson said. "I love him a lot, because he's the type of player that always talks. He likes to talk and get everybody hyped up on the offense.
"He doesn't like quietness and people looking sad all the time. He likes to hype it up and get everybody in the mood."
Jones doesn't just talk, though. Richardson and fellow freshmen Marsalis Teague and Zach Rogers constantly seek advice their unit's unofficial captain.
"He's meant the world to us," Teague said in preseason camp. "He's the guy you go to when you've got a problem."
Former UT coach Phillip Fulmer marveled at how quickly Jones learned former coordinator David Cutcliffe's offense as a freshman -- and not just for receivers, but for the entire offense -- and Kiffin and Co. have made similar remarks the past few months. The new staff doesn't ask for receivers to know the sideline-to-quarterback hand signals, but Jones studied them out of sheer curiosity.
"Well ... I also just like to tell Crompton when he messes up," Jones admitted. "I can go to go the huddle and go, 'Gotcha!'"
Those laughs have been a far cry from recent weeks, when UT's offensive players used phony public facades to mask mounting frustration. Kiffin and his staff squelched most of the issues, as evidenced by the big win over the Bulldogs.
Jones, unlike recently dismissed veteran receiver Brandon Warren, fell in line.
"When I got the (latest) setback, I almost felt as if I was forgotten about," Jones said. "And that wasn't the attitude to have. It was really the coaches telling me, 'You're going to have to work for this spot. You're going to have to prove the same person that you were when we got here.' And I wasn't, when I got hurt. But I just went at it and continued making progress.
"Now, I'm not happy with it, because I want more. I've actually showed eagerness and hunger to get better. And when I do it, all my other fellow receivers, they start doing it, too. It's a movement. As a leader and the captain of this wide receiver team, it's up to me to get us out here and get better."
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