In his final game as a UTEP Miner, Aaron Jones was a blur. The 5-foot-9 running back rushed for 301 yards against North Texas on just 24 attempts, crossing the goal line four times and averaging a ridiculous 12.5 yards per carry. Two weeks earlier, he broke UTEP’s all-time rushing record when he went for 229 yards against FAU. Now he stands alone at the top of that list, his 4,114 career rushing yards in just over three seasons constituting the final star on his glittering résumé. There was nothing left for Jones to accomplishment in El Paso. The NFL beckoned. His play spoke for itself.
Then he was told he should go back to school.
In December of 2016, Jones submitted his name to an NFL committee to get a sense of where he might go in the NFL Draft. Despite his gaudy numbers, he played in Conference-USA and wasn’t a known commodity in much of the country. Still, could he sneak into the second round? Or was the third round more realistic? If he happened to fall, would it be any further than the fourth?
“They told me to go back to school,” Jones said from the outdoor turf field at EXOS San Diego, where he’s been training. “But my coach, he came from the NFL and he has a lot of great connections. He said it was the best decision [for me], knowing the lifespan of a running back in the NFL and the punishment they take. I did what I wanted to do at UTEP. It was time for me to go.”
Indeed, Sean Kugler, Jones’s head coach at UTEP, knows the fragility of NFL life better than most. He played at UTEP, too, as a four-year starter on the offensive line. He went undrafted in 1989, but latched on to the Pittsburgh Steelers in training camp. He quickly suffered a concussion and was later released. And that was that. Kugler went on coach for both the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers before landing the head coaching job at UTEP, and he knows he’s got a good one in Jones.
“It doesn’t matter what round [Jones] goes in, he’s going to make some team happy,” Kugler told the El-Paso Times.
Jones is too polite to admit it, a result of growing up in a military family, but one can imagine his initial response to being told to return to UTEP for a another season as less measured than the one he gave above. Then again, these sorts of slights are commonplace to Jones.
He had just three offers coming out of high school, none of them from sexy, big-time programs. Having lived in El Paso since he was 13, Jones elected to stay home, but the Miners compiled a disappointing 18-31 record during his time at UTEP, again keeping Jones’s name out of the national spotlight despite his otherworldly numbers.
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But you won’t hear much complaining from Jones. He has a quiet strength that lurks beneath the surface, one born from both the presence, and the absence, of family in his life.
By the time his family settled in El Paso, Jones had already lived in four different states. Born in Georgia to parents who met while both serving in the Army, Jones moved to Germany, then to Tennessee, then to Virginia, then back to Tennessee, then back to Virginia again before finally landing in Texas.
“You get to experience a lot of different cultures,” Jones said of his military lifestyle. “A lot of ‘Yes ma’am,’ ‘No ma’am,’ and ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No sir.’ You’re on time for everything. It’s a lot of structure, and I like that now that I’m living on my own. I still follow those rules, and it’s helping me.”
But for all the structure a military environment provides, it can quickly devolve into chaos. Not only are you forced to uproot your life and move at the drop of a hat, sometimes multiple times in a single year, there’s always the threat of deployment. And that’s exactly what happened when Jones was living in Tennessee. Both his parents were deployed to Iraq for six months, forcing Jones, his younger brother and older sister to travel to Virginia and move in with their aunt and uncle.
“It was tough when both my parents went away,” Jones said. “But luckily I had my brother and my sister with me. My older sister, she did a good job of looking after me and my brother, as did my aunt and uncle. I really appreciate them for that.”
Jones’s strongest bond is with his brother, Alvin. They’re fraternal twins, the cliché set of siblings that do everything together and are stuck together as if their clothing were lined with super glue. When Alvin, a linebacker, didn’t receive a single offer to play football out of high school, Aaron lobbied Kugler to sign him so they could continue to play together. Kugler obliged, and Alvin led the Miners in tackles each of the past two seasons.
“We were born together, we’ve always been next to each other, we’ve never left each other’s side,” Jones said. “Whenever we moved to different places I would always have him. I wouldn’t really have to worry about making friends right away because I had him.”
It wasn’t the pre-draft report that gave Jones pause. It wasn’t the fear of the unknown at the NFL level that had Jones contemplating a return to UTEP. It was his brother.
“The hardest part was leaving my brother,” Jones said. “I Facetime him like four times a day. We’ll sit on the phone and talk about nothing, just there on the phone together. That was definitely the hardest part, but we’re making it.”
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In the meantime, Jones is working ferociously to prove that returning to school would’ve been a mistake. His training at EXOS San Diego led to a banner week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. He ran a 4.5 40-Yard Dash. He leapt 37.5 inches in the Vertical Jump, second-best among running backs. He ran the 3-Cone drill in 6.82 seconds, second only to Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. He created some major buzz for himself, and yet his name is still nowhere to be found when most experts talk about the top tier running backs in this draft.
And that’s OK.
“A lot of people don’t know about me, just because I came from UTEP,” Jones said. “I do feel slept on. You see all these other guys getting the hype, but that doesn’t bother me. That just adds a bigger chip to my shoulder.”
Though Jones has spent the majority of his time since leaving El Paso hundreds of miles away from his family preparing for the NFL Draft, they’re never far from his consciousness. Jones has a tattoo on the side of his torso. It reads: “Love of my mother, Strength of my father, Courage of my sister, unity of my brother.”
“Without them, I don’t know if I could be here right now,” Jones said.
Jones is here, though, and so far he’s done everything right on his path to playing on Sundays. He dominated the Combine. He had private workouts with a handful of NFL teams, sessions that he says he “killed.” All that’s left to do is wait until April 27, when his choice to leave his school, his home and his brother will ultimately be validated.
“I dream about it,” Jones said of hearing his name called on draft night. “I just sit there in my room and think about it all the time. It’s going to be an exciting moment.”
After years of being doubted, Aaron Jones is about to arrive.