Jones laying a little groundwork for Seahawks
RENTON – Seattle Seahawks running back Julius Jones was standing in the hallway outside the training room at the team’s practice facility recently when lineman Mike Wahle sauntered by.
“There he is,” Jones teased, “the biggest acquisition of the offseason.”
Jones was referring to a comment that Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren made a week earlier when evaluating the changing face of the team and its signing of Wahle, who will immediately step in as the left guard.
Jones was joking with Wahle, but there had to be a hint of envy that Holmgren uttered those words about Wahle and not about Jones. After all, when does an offensive lineman ever get more recognition than the starting running back?
Wasn’t the signing of Jones supposed to be the watershed moment for a team that was ending its relationship with 2005 MVP Shaun Alexander in an attempt to revive an anemic running game?
Almost every decision Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell made this offseason went toward improving a running game that failed Holmgren last season, forcing the Seahawks to become one-dimensional and subjecting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to even more pounding.
Ruskell was intent on re-establishing the balanced attack that has been a hallmark of Holmgren’s Seahawks teams. Jones was a component, but not the only one, of that badly needed makeover.
Seemingly, Jones was being passed over again. Just like in Dallas when his former team slowly turned his job over to Marion Barber.
A new beginning or more of the same? Less than a month into his first training camp with his new team and already Jones was being overshadowed by a guard.
ROOTS IN APPALACHIA
Jones is a small-town kid from Big Stone Gap, Va., a coal-mining burg in the southwestern tip of the state best known for producing, well, Jones, as well as his brother, Thomas, who plays for the New York Jets.
From that dinky Appalachian outpost, Jones went to college at Notre Dame. Jones said he actually traveled to South Bend, Ind., his freshman year in high school, on a recruiting trip with older brother Thomas, when then-coach Lou Holtz told him, “See you in four years.”
Though Thomas ultimately went to Virginia, Julius proved Holtz prophetic, returning to the Irish under Holtz’s replacement, Bob Davie.
Jones said his freshman year was crazy.
“I got pretty wild my freshman year,” he said. “Just from the aspect of not seeing anything and then going to a big, huge college, one of the best colleges in the country. You are on your own, and coming from a small town. Who let the dogs out?”
Jones did not get in trouble that season, but after his junior season, he lost his eligibility. He said he lost his focus and let his grades slide.
At the same time, Davie was replaced by Tyrone Willingham. Willingham publicly disparaged Jones, telling reporters he didn’t consider him a leader but privately told Jones if he got everything straightened out Jones could return to school his senior season.
Instead of entering the draft, Jones went to Arizona to live with Thomas, who was playing for the Cardinals.
“I could have gone pro but I wasn’t ready,” Jones said. “I just needed another year to focus. I left school obviously because I wasn’t focused on some things. Going straight to the NFL could have been a disaster. Sometimes you got to hit the reset button. And that’s how it was for me.
“I took that year off and just got dedicated to football. I had the opportunity of a lifetime and I squandered it. And thank God I got it back. I was just able to take a year and live with my brother and get close to him again.”
Jones’ replacement at Notre Dame, Ryan Grant – the same player who ran for 201 yards and three touchdowns against the Seahawks in their playoff loss to Green Bay last season – recorded a 1,000-yard season but Jones regained his starting job when he returned to school. As a senior, Jones rushed for 1,268 yards, the fourth-most in school history, which impressed Dallas enough to draft him in the second round with the 43rd pick of the 2004 draft.
If Notre Dame was a frying pan, Dallas was a towering inferno. The heat and expectations were on Jones from the beginning: He was supposed to be the replacement for Emmitt Smith and become the next storied running back for one of the NFL’s most storied teams.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Jones, because of a series of injuries and the emergence of Barber, broke the 1,000-yard barrier just once in four seasons with Dallas. Last year Jones started all 16 games but Barber, a more physical runner, got more carries (204-164) and more yards (975-588).
Jones is sensitive when the Dallas topic arises. The closest thing to an explanation he’ll offer is: “Dallas is just where I got drafted to play. That is it. That is what I take from there, simple as that. I am glad they drafted me, it got my foot in the NFL, and the rest is history.
“Who knows where their heads are? They did what they wanted to do, which was not having me. I am here now.”
The bitter feelings Jones has toward the Dallas organization – which Jones will visit for the first time on Thanksgiving Day in a nationally televised game – speaks to his situation in Seattle, as well.
Because he clearly needed to, as he said, “hit the reset button.” He no longer wanted to share the spotlight or carries. Yet here he is with the Seahawks and not only is Holmgren calling Wahle the “biggest acquisition of the offseason,” he has emphatically stated that Jones and Morris will be sharing carries.
NEW PLACE, NEW CULTURE
Jones often talks about the differences between Seattle and Dallas, how there are 10,000 people at the Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard, Calif., while there are a handful of occasional visitors to Seattle’s camp.
“People plan their entire vacations around Cowboys training camp,” Jones said. “What’s that tell you?
“Here, in this organization, it is different than Dallas and Notre Dame. It is more like community here. There is not so much hustle and so much made of everything you do here. People leave you alone and let you do what you want to do.”
On his free-agent recruiting trip here, Jones had dinner one night with special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, who was Bill Parcells’ special teams coach at Dallas from 2003 to 2006. He helped convince Jones, who also had visited Tennessee and Detroit, to sign with the Seahawks.
“I am very fond of Julius. I like him a lot,” DeHaven said. “I was very honest with him. I really didn’t try to recruit him. It was very easy to tell him about the team, the organization and the city. I just told him, ‘I really like it here. I think you’d like it here, too.’ ”
When Jones signed, it was widely assumed that he would be the primary back, perhaps only giving up short-yardage carries to T.J. Duckett, whom the Seahawks also signed as a free agent.
What nobody knew was that Holmgren had already told Maurice Morris, one of his favorite players, that he was going to get a chance to start.
Morris had backed up Shaun Alexander for six seasons, always living in the considerable shadow of that polarizing figure. Even in Alexander’s final season with Seattle, when Alexander’s game had slipped, Morris quietly went about his business. Morris almost outgained Alexander, 716-628 yards, despite starting only six games.
Holmgren appreciated that. When Alexander was released, he told Morris that if he played well enough, he’d get the opportunity to start. Holmgren wasn’t handing Morris the job; he would have to perform.
“It is about honoring my word,” Holmgren said. “I couldn’t go back on what I’d told Mo. And Julius appreciates that. How would he feel if I told him something and then broke my promise to him? That’s what happened to him in Dallas. He wouldn’t want that happening to somebody else.”
To Morris’ credit, he has played well enough to earn the right to share carries with Jones. Though both have been used in the preseason far less than rookie Justin Forsett or Duckett, Morris has averaged 6.7 yards a carry in 15 carries, while Jones has averaged 4.1 yards a carry.
So Jones finds himself in a situation very similar to the one he just left, unsure of his role or how many carries he’ll get. He would rather sidestep the issue rather tackle it head on.
“When I came here, Coach Holmgren told me I had the opportunity for a starting job. And that is all I ask for,” Jones said. “I don’t care if I have to share carries. All I am going to do is go play. I am going to let my actions on the field speak for themselves. I am not going to say anything about starting or starting down the line or anything like that. I am just going to go play.”