Apr. 3—PEMBROKE — Often times in football, as the quarterback goes, so goes the team also.
That's been true so far this season for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team, as junior quarterback Josh Jones has shown great improvement from his first two years, and the Braves have won two of their first three games in the unique spring campaign.
"I think, just as a whole team, it kind of came together a little bit these last three games," Jones said. "I thought we've played complete football all the way around, and eventually that comes back to me in the headlines and all that. It's one of those things where we feel like it's been a long time coming; we've got a long ways to go, but if we continue pushing forward with a team effort, good things are on the horizon for us."
Jones, a Wilmington native and Hoggard graduate, has completed 75 of his 108 pass attempts over three games for 931 yards, with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. This includes a 350-yard performance, in which he was 26-for-32 with four touchdowns, against Glenville State, which earned him Mountain East Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"I think he's felt a lot more comfortable this year with our receivers and their ability to understand the offense, and run routes very well, and then be able to catch the ball and make some plays after he gets them the ball," UNCP coach Shane Richardson said. "I think his comfortability with that has contributed to him being able to perform well, and I think he's able to be protected, that's also a big deal. He's become very good at being able to scramble and escape when he needs to."
Jones and Richardson both attribute his improvement to preparation — both preparing for the season during the long period between his sophomore and junior campaigns, nearly a year and a half because of the pandemic, and preparing week-to-week for each opponent.
"We had so long with quarantine and all that, so we were away from each other, so I just tried to focus on myself, speed-wise," Jones said. "And then, basically, getting more comfortable with the playbook, really understanding what needs to happen, and also having a plan; when something goes wrong, know where you're going to go with the ball.
"When you go into a game and you think you know exactly what the other team is going to do, it really helps, and it really helps in terms of having a plan. If I figure out that we know what they're going to do, I know where to put the ball."
Jones and the Braves have had plenty of ups and downs over his first two seasons, but have improved through that time. Jones completed 56.5% of passes as a freshman in 2018, 62.2% as a sophomore and is currently completing 69.4% this season; the Braves have gone from 2-9 to 4-7 and now currently 2-1.
"You can really look back at my freshman year and say we were a young football team," Jones said. "My sophomore year we made some improvements, but we didn't learn to win consistently. Skill-wise, I thought we improved; we knew the playbook better, we knew the concepts, and we also took leaps in terms preparation as a team."
As one of the Braves' leaders, Jones says he approaches that role with the simple thought of leading by example. Richardson sees it playing out in just that way.
"He is very good at setting an example and making sure that other guys understand what the expectations are," Richardson said. "That's really the biggest thing he brings to the table. But with him, off the field, you can really trust his character. I think that's the thing his teammates really respect about him, and you can always count on him to be doing the right things. He's going to make sure he's coming to class, doing the right things academically, and doing the right things off the field."
The improvement shown by both Jones and the Braves team this spring bodes well not only for what's left of this season — an April 10 home game against Concord — but also for the full season scheduled for the fall, when nearly all of the Braves' key players are expected to return.
"I think his best is still yet to come," Richardson said. "Referring to this year, the three games that he's played in, I think he's still learning and growing from mistakes and experiences and scenarios, and that's going to bode well for, obviously, his growth, but also the team's growth. The longer and better that he continues to get and stick around, I think our team will continue to thrive and become a better team. I'm hoping he stays as long as he can, and I'm really looking forward to what his future brings."
"The sky's the limit for us," Jones said. "If we have a good summer of offseason preparation, getting our bodies ready to go mentally and physcially, I think next fall's going to be special. We've got to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, but if you continue to stack those days on top of each other, win after win after win, and kind of reset each week, I think we can do some damage for sure."
Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.