Velus Jones Jr.’s first touchdown in a Tennessee uniform came late in the fourth quarter against Florida in December of 2020.
The Southern California graduate transfer snagged a fade from quarterback J.T. Shrout in the far corner of the south endzone as the seconds ticked away in what would be Tennessee’s fourth consecutive loss to the Gators. The 31-19 final score made it seem closer than it was.
Jones had a slow start to the year, but he finally started to hit his stride against Florida in week eight.
The team had dropped six in a row, though. The Vols ended that season at 3-7, the worst record in Tennessee’s football history. Shrout, among others, would end up transferring from the program later that spring.
“My plans are to finish strong,” Jones said regarding speculation he’d leave the team the following season. “The goal is just to keep going, win or lose. Keep moving.”
He fulfilled those plans the following week. Jones was instrumental in the Vols’ 42-17 victory over Vanderbilt, catching seven balls for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns — the best performance of his college career. It was Tennessee’s final win of the season.
Even with a new coaching staff and a shot at going pro on the table, Jones chose to stick around on Rocky Top. He is the Vols’ leading producer among returners at receiver this season.
“I didn’t panic like I did last year,” Jones said. “I just prayed every day and every night, thanking God for the opportunity, being blessed to have an extra year to come back.”
His big performance against Tennessee Tech is a testament to this — Jones has come into his final year ready to compete at a high level despite limited snaps in the early going after a hamstring injury in spring practice.
“I feel 100%,” Jones said. “I’m happy to be back and be here with my brothers and battle with them.”
Jones’ fifth touchdown of his college career against Tennessee Tech was perhaps his most impressive. Jones took a quick in to the house, tiptoeing the sideline and shedding a few Golden Eagles defenders along the way.
“It was just a quick in, I figured there was going to be a big window for me,” Jones said. “I made a move, got open. I knew I was going to have to get skinny, because I knew the corner was on me. I broke that tackle and was off to the races. I had the ball in my right hand, and we don’t ever switch the ball over in traffic. (The next defender) was gaining on me and I was just thinking I had to hesi towards him to keep him back for a little so I could get to the endzone.”
This talent in the open field is virtually unmatched on the team. His expertise in the return game emphasizes this.
Jones is the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) leader in active kick return yards with 2,519. After returning 7 kicks for 197 yards through three games, Jones needs only 203 yards to enter the top-30 in all-time kickoff return yards by an individual player.
At this point, it seems like his accomplishment of that feat will only be a matter of time. Jones is proving himself to not only be a versatile returner, but a potent weapon for Josh Heupel and the Tennessee offense.
So, how does he do it?
For Jones, mentality is everything. After Tennessee’s latest win against the Golden Eagles, Jones was rocking a GOAT necklace — “Greatest Of All Time.”
“I feel like everything you do is a mindset,” Jones said. “When you go out there on the field, you have to feel like you’re the best at what you do, and that’s the confidence I have in my game.”