KNOXVILLE — Four days into this year, Tennessee receiver and return specialist Velus Jones Jr. announced via social media that he was going to use a sixth season of eligibility and play a second year for the Volunteers.
Talented teammates would depart through the NCAA transfer portal, and the university would announce the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and the hiring of Josh Heupel, but the decision by Jones to stay has never been more justified. During Tennessee's 60-14 pulverizing of South Alabama inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, the 6-foot, 200-pounder set a personal best with 246 all-purpose yards.
"This just shows you what God has in store for you," Jones said. "You never know what's going to happen next or what lies ahead of you, and I thank God for talking me into coming to this university. I've been loving it ever since. It's been quite a journey since I've been here with the switches of coaches and everything.
"Overall, I love this university, and I'm thankful for the opportunity with these new coaches believing in me as a player. I couldn't have written this story any better."
His latest chapter with the Vols included 10 catches for 203 yards, a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and three punt returns for 47 yards. His kickoff return with 1:18 before halftime provided Tennessee a 35-7 lead, and it's in the running for the most exciting play of Heupel's debut season.
Jones was spun around before reaching Tennessee's 30-yard line, and when he reached the South Alabama 35, he patiently waited for his blockers to provide the final path. He cut inside and then outside before reaching the end zone.
"He's dynamic as a returner, has a great understanding and feels all of the traffic," Heupel said. "I don't know how he developed it. It's God-given, because guys have a sense and a feel for it. There is always a lot of noise happening right in front of him, and he's got a great feel for all the movement of bodies.
"It's a really special gift, and the strength of his arms and his frame allow him to be physical and have the ability to run through some things."
Jones admitted that when he started returning kickoffs as a Southern California redshirt freshman in 2017, he tried to hit everything at full speed.
"I always had a vision for it," he said. "In high school, I always did kickoff returns and punt returns. I had a kickoff return call to the house in high school as well, and I had one at USC. It takes vision, and you've also got to be able to run through arm tackles. I'm blessed with speed through family genetics.
"You do have to slow it down from full speed to see cutbacks and things like that. With reps, I got good at that."
Though his 246 all-purpose greatly enhanced Tennessee attaining bowl eligibility following last season's 3-7 collapse, Jones stopped short of calling it his top career contest.
"I've had a few good games that I can remember, so I wouldn't say that it's my favorite," he said. "It's all about making memories and moments with my brothers. I give my kickoff return team and my blockers all the credit, because without them, that kickoff return would not be possible.
"Down the line we'll be able to talk about games like this and seasons like this, but it's all about making memories with my brothers."
Odds and ends
Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker moved up to fourth nationally in passing efficiency (183.42), one spot behind Alabama's Bryce Young (186.23) and one spot ahead of Georgia's Stetson Bennett (181.86). ... By holding the Jaguars to 1-for-16 on third-down conversions, the Vols moved up from 125th nationally in that category to 110th. ... The Vols opened Sunday as 31-point favorites over Vanderbilt.