College Football: Unconventional path pays off for Jones

Travis Jones used to try to sneak into tackling drills when he was a senior at Atascadero High in 2005.

To no surprise, Greyhounds head coach Vic Cooper, then in his first year, didn’t want his all-league and all-county quarterback getting hurt in practice, so Jones was quickly plucked from the tackling lines.

Few grasped it at the time, but Jones’ desire to hit was some foreshadowing of things to come. It’s not a very conventional path for a little-recruited high school quarterback to go on and start at middle linebacker in the Western Athletic Conference, but he did it.

When the Cal Poly football team travels to San Jose State for Saturday’s nonconference game, the fifth-year senior will be patrolling the middle for the Spartans. He led San Jose State with 72 tackles in his first year starting last season and this week was named to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team.

Atascadero defensive coordinator Ben Tomasini saw Jones as a college linebacker, even though the 6-foot-1, 175-pound quarterback couldn’t really envision himself as the 230-pounder he is today.

“Coach Tomasini, he told me when I went to college, ‘You’re going to end up as a linebacker,’ ” Jones said. “I said, ‘I’m going to play quarterback. I’m a quarterback,’ and he said, ‘You’ll see. You’re going to be a linebacker.’ ”

Said Tomasini: “We knew when he played for us that he was just a great all-around athlete. We knew if we would play him on defense, he’d probably be our best defender. A kid like Travis Jones, we could have put him anywhere on the field and he would have been the best kid at that position.

“He was wiry in high school. But you look at his frame and you look at his dad and you pretty much figure out pretty quick that this kid could get pretty big.”

Jones’s dad Paul was a fullback at Cal from 1975 to 1979. Around 6 feet and a solid 230, Paul was the offensive MVP for the Golden Bears in 1978 and had a reputation for being a big bruiser.

By contrast, Jones wrestled at 171 pounds for the Greyhounds. He finished his football career passing for 1,245 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 531 yards and another eight scores his senior year.

A three-sport athlete, Jones also started to get good marks for his leadership and citizenship. Before coming to offseason workouts, he would swing by two or three teammates’ house to make sure they put in the work, too.

“There’s not many kids that have come through that high school that I can say are that high quality of a kid,” said Cooper, an Atascadero alumnus who has taught at the school for 15 years.“He was the guy that would encourage kids and he had an innate ability to know how to handle each kid.”

Cal Poly defensive end Brandon Roberts was a sophomore linebacker and backup quarterback at Atascadero during Jones’s senior year and was one of the younger players who looked up to Jones.

“He’s always been a really hard worker,” Roberts said. “He was always in the weight room doing whatever he needed to do to get better. I knew anywhere he ended up he was going to start.”

Leading a 3-7 Atascadero team that went 0-4 in the PAC 5 didn’t get Jones much recruiting attention, not even from nearby Cal Poly — where Jones went to games growing up and had hopes of playing.

Jones was all prepared to go to Menlo College, a Division III school north of Palo Alto, when his game tape somehow ended up on Spartans coach Dick Tomey’s desk. Impressed by what he saw, Tomey asked Jones to try out for the team as a walk-on.

He only lasted a couple of weeks as a quarterback, but after a redshirt year, Jones was a back-to-back special teams player of the year for San Jose State before moving into the starting lineup at linebacker last year.

In three games this season, Jones has 15 tackles, one for loss and a fumble recovery for the Spartans (0-3).

After two blowout losses to Pac-10 teams USC to open the season and Stanford last week and a more competitive loss to Utah in between, San Jose State hasn’t had much good news this year.

Jones’s selection to the Good Works Team might even be the best.

The honor goes to 11 players each from the Football Bowl and Championship Subdivisions who show a dedication to community service. Jones is the first San Jose State player to earn the distinction in its 18-year history and the first WAC player to do so in eight years. In his first semester at San Jose State, one of Jones’s classes required community service hours. He satisfied it by bagging groceries at a Thanksgiving food drive, but he didn’t stop there.

Jones has been a perennial participant in a program aimed at battling rape, sexual assault and gender violence. He’s also helped organize a Toys for Tots gift and money drive and has worked at the annual Pat’s Run, which benefits the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“It was such an honor,” Jones said of the Good Works Team nod. “I was honored in the first place just to be nominated.”