Carthage walk-on makes good

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Carthage QB Evan Jones
The option quarterback from the 0-9 team is leading a Carthage team bent on returning to the playoffs.
Carthage photo by Mike Gryniewicz

There is something in college athletics that’s called “admission recruits.” The admission’s office calls a coach to tell him a student-athlete will be on campus – almost always someone who’s not being recruited by the school – with a parent in tow and wants to visit the coach.

Carthage’s Tim Rucks, like many other coaches, got a call like this several years ago from a player from a 0-9 high school team from nearby Grayslake, Ill. The team ran the wishbone, not exactly a fit for the Red Men’s no-huddle, "pass first and ask questions later” offense. When the coach looked up the player statistics on the Internet, he was equally unimpressed, seeing that he threw about four times a game.

But when Evan Jones walked into the office with his father that day, something just seemed to click between the 6-1, 195-pound Jones and Rucks. Suddenly, Rucks was faced with ignoring stats and past records to take a chance on someone who landed on his doorstep out of the blue.

“About 99 percent of the time, those people don’t end up being very good football players,” Rucks said. “There was something about him when I met him. I thought he acted like a quarterback and talked like a quarterback. I saw a real competitive nature in the guy. Quarterbacks have to have a certain moxie and leadership ability. I saw that in him.”

Fast forward to last Saturday with Carthage trailing Lakeland 28-21 with 1:05 left in the game and 80 yards to go for the tying touchdown. Rucks turns over the entire offense to that former wishbone quarterback, now a senior, and he goes 4-for-5, calling mostly his own plays, to score the tying touchdown with 18 seconds left.

Then in overtime, Jones throws a scoring strike on the first play and the Red Men defeat the defending Northern Athletic Conference champions 35-34 on the road.

It’s an amazing story of how Jones has made the most of his opportunity at quarterback when no one else saw in him what Rucks saw. Now Jones has blossomed into one of the best passing quarterbacks in Division III football and has Carthage challenging again in the tough College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.

“If you have five hours, I can talk with you about how much he’s meant to this program,” Rucks says about Jones. “It’s been immense. He’s one of those rare guys you get to coach. He’s just an unbelievably good person, leader and role model for anyone in this program. He’s one of those special kids that come around only once in awhile.”

Jones earned second-team All-CCIW honors last year. He broke his own school records for most passing yards in a season (3,554), completions (309), passing attempts (464), touchdown passes (32) and total offense (3,655). He already owns the school’s all-time records with 5,435 total yards, 4,253 yards passing and 42 touchdown passes – before this season started.

In one of Carthage’s biggest games against nationally ranked North Central last year, Jones set school, Art Keller Field and CCIW records for total offensive yards (567), passing yards (562), passing attempts (84) and completions (47) and tying a school record with six touchdown passes.

And you said he was a wishbone/option quarterback in high school?

“Growing up, I knew I had a good arm and could always throw the football,” Jones said. “It’s just one of those unlucky things that you go to a high school where the coach has a system where he wants to run the ball. I wasn’t going to be one of those players who has his dad call and say you need to throw the ball. I wasn’t going to be a problem. We just let that go.”

Things weren’t exactly all roses for Jones at Carthage. Coming out of a running system and an injury his freshman year slowed his progress. Then, during Jones’ sophomore year, the Red Men hired a new offensive coordinator, Terry Peebles, from Hanover. By Jones own account Peebles rode the young quarterback hard, but in the process, things slowly started to click.

“It was difficult because things at training camp weren’t going very well,” Jones said. “I think the fact that Coach Peeples stayed on me helped me out because it instilled a fear of failing. I think that’s what helped me succeed.”

Rucks said while Jones started nine of 10 games as a sophomore and set several school records, there were a lot of growing pains as well, including 20 interceptions that nearly negated his 27 touchdown passes. He lowered the pick number to 14 this past season and he’s been intercepted once in two games this season.

“We threw the ball so much and we just got on a roll,” Jones said. “After the season, it was the 20 interceptions that stood out for me, so I became more focused and determined to learn the offense a lot better.”

Carthage is hoping to improve on its 7-3 record this year. To do that, though, the 2-0 Red Men will face Concordia (Wis.). Then, they must face the likes of nationally ranked North Central and Illinois Wesleyan and traditionally strong Wheaton and Augustana in the tough CCIW.

“When we go and play those teams, we have to stay focused,” Jones said. “We can’t get freaked out just because we’re playing a nationally ranked team. We have to stay composed and take care of business.”

Carthage has done it before. In the finale last year, the Red Men beat then No. 21-ranked Wheaton 35-30.

Rucks said Carthage’s offense hasn’t hit on all cylinders yet and hopes the last drive against Lakeland was what the doctor ordered. Jones is 46-for-81 for 575 yards so far this season.

“Our league is crazy,” Rucks said. “Every week is like a Super Bowl. We need our offense to be consistent. We have yet to get a roll with our offense. Evan’s carrying a lot on his shoulders because everyone knows he’s the man. I hope Evan doesn’t feel pressure that he has to do it all. Then again, that’s the nature of the position. If anyone is mature enough to handle it, it’s Evan. These guys don’t come around very often.”

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss

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