KNOXVILLE — Gerald Jones is one of the University of Tennessee’s most extroverted, emotional football players, but he whispered Tuesday night when talking about his emotions on Sept. 4.
Not long after helping lead the Volunteers to a 50-0, season-opening win over UT-Martin, the senior wide receiver sat in a radiology room and listened to a doctor tell him his left hand X-ray looked “fine.”
At least from up top, it looked fine.
But then a picture was taken from the side.
That picture wasn’t pretty. It showed an overlapping fracture that hid from the overhead angle.
“I, uh ... I, uh ... I cried,” Jones said quietly. “I ain’t going to lie. I did. I cried.”
Jones, a highly touted signee from Oklahoma who also has played shotgun quarterback in the “G-Gun” package, has been a training-room regular the past four years. He’s twisted ankles, sprained knees, separated shoulders and seemingly bruised nearly every bone in his body.
“But I’d never broken anything, man,” he said. “When I caught the ball and got up, my hand was just so numb. I thought it was just a big jam, and I’d jammed all my fingers, really.
“And when they said, ‘You broke it,’ I just broke down. I didn’t know how long I was going to be out. I didn’t know if it was the whole season or whatever.
“I’m just counting my blessings.”
He’s counting those blessings because he returned to practice Tuesday — barely more than three weeks after several screws were inserted in his hand — and he’s been declared fit to play in Saturday’s game at 12th-ranked LSU.
A three-inch scar still runs along the top of his hand. His middle finger has to be taped to his ring finger. His pinkie hurts for some inexplicable reason.
But he’s back.
“It’s big for the whole team,” sophomore wideout Zach Rogers said. “It’s really big.”
Getting a Southeastern Conference veteran is big for an offense that has converted just 18.97 percent of its third downs into firsts this season. That ranks 119th out of 120 major college programs.
“It’s really great just to have him back and have that other leader in the huddle,” junior quarterback Matt Simms said. “Gerald is a tremendous player. I’ll be happy to get him back out there because I know I can depend on him on each and every down. He’s one of those guys, he knows exactly what to do. He kind of sees things the exact same way that I see things on the field.
“I look forward to kind of reuniting that chemistry.”
Jones said he stayed in shape by running the past three weeks, and first-year coach Derek Dooley was cautiously optimistic after Tuesday’s practice.
“Gerald looked good — moving around good, catching the ball well,” Dooley said. “We’ll see how the week goes. The first day is always easy, like that first round of golf you play in the spring when you’ve had about nine months off. You go out there and stroke it and go, ‘I got it!’ Then you go out that second round and you’re all over the place.
“So we’ll see how he does tomorrow.”
But, Dooley reiterated, Tuesday was a good start.
“You can’t ever really be in game shape, but he has run a lot, because it was a hand and not a leg, knee or ankle — so I’m hoping that’s not an issue,” Dooley said. “And the weather helps, not being real hot. He was good. But, you know, he’s a senior. Part of it is mental.
“It’s very rare to play a game where you’re not hurting somewhere. It’s rare in football. And learning how to manage the pain is critical to performing consistently. So you have to just acknowledge pain is a part of it: ‘I’m not always going to be 100 percent, but I’ve got to play and go. I’ve got to perform, and it’s not an excuse.’
“He’s a senior, and you could tell. He came out like, ‘Boom! I’m good.’ There was no sign of ... ‘I dropped that because of my hand.’”
Jones whispered when discussing his breakdown, but he was his normal, loquacious self on the practice field. And before practice. And after practice. And with the media.
He said he was ready to face LSU junior cornerback Patrick Peterson, a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I am so ready for No. 7,” Jones said. “To be honest with you, I think a lot of people fear him because he’s so big. He’s 6-2, 220. He’s a pretty good athlete, but he has his weaknesses, too. He’s not Superman.
“I am going to give him my all, and it’s going to be a battle come Saturday.”
To make it a battle, the Vols must play much better than they did in last weekend’s double-overtime win over UAB. They won despite being nearly doubled in offensive yards.
The Vols will be better, Jones said.
“I’m pushing this team right now so hard, they probably don’t like me,” Jones said. “But I don’t like it. I don’t like the way we’re playing. Not one bit. I’m on everybody’s tail.
“We’re not going to allow that to happen again.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.
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