It hasn’t been easy for Emory Jones as he’s navigated the college football landscape over the last few seasons, playing for new coaches at new schools in each of the last three seasons.
He began his career at Florida, spending three seasons riding the pine in Gainesville before he finally took the starting role in 2021. But when Dan Mullen was fired following the season, he entered the portal. And he found his way to Arizona State.
Jones committed to Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils, but when Edwards was fired after just three games in 2022, it led to another portal entrance at the end of the season. It led to his third stop in college football, Cincinnati.
It’s safe to say that it looks like Cincinnati was the right move — although, that declaration comes after just one game.
In a 66-14 throttling of Eastern Kentucky, Jones completed all but six of his pass attempts for 345 yards and five touchdowns. He didn’t rack up a bunch of yards on the ground, but he dashed into the end zone two more times. Jones has high expectations for himself in his final collegiate season. And Pat Narduzzi does, too.
“I think they’ve got the No. 5 offense in the country coming in here,” Narduzzi said at his weekly presser Monday. “Scored a lot of points, explosive at the tailback spot and at wide receiver. Emory Jones is a quarterback transfer, Florida to Arizona State … But great player, athletic. I don’t know if he’s Malik Cunningham but really athletic.”
It’s tough to take too much away from stomping a United Athletic Conference foe, even though it’s the preseason UAC favorite, but Pitt is familiar with new Cincinnati head coach Scott Satterfield and offensive coordinator Brad Glenn.
Satterfield, of course, spent the last four seasons at Louisville as its head coach. And Glenn served as Virginia Tech’s passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach last season before joining Satterfield’s staff this season.
Jones isn’t quite Malik Cunningham, but Narduzzi sees a very similar style of offense that Satterfield ran at Louisville through one game this season. Cincinnati likes the outside zone run scheme, which Narduzzi forewarned isn’t usually a recipe for success against Pitt’s defense, but the Bearcats — and the Cardinals — can mix it up.
“They do a good job,” Narduzzi said. “They’re going to go back and look at games from the last three years. They did it at Louisville, and they kind of copycat some stuff that you can just notice, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a play that we saw against Miami back in this day,’ and kind of go back and look and go, ‘they did a good job copycatting.’”
It depends on whether Cincinnati is copycatting or not, but Jones is an able scrambler. If he doesn’t like what he sees downfield, he can tuck the ball and take off downfield. He didn’t showcase his legs much at Arizona State, but he ran 758 yards and four touchdowns as a junior at Florida in 2021.
In 2021, Jones ran the ball quite a bit, 86 designed rush attempts and 25 scrambles, and he was effective in racking up designed yards (584) and scramble yards (233).
Jones’ running style was effective in breaking tackles, 381 yards after contact at a 2.91 clip and 26 missed tackles, but he broke 30 runs of 10+ yards and eight runs of 15+ yards, too. But those numbers plummeted across the board at Arizona State in 2022.
And against Eastern Kentucky, despite a solid day on the ground with 29 yards and two touchdowns, he only had one designed run and two scrambles. Narduzzi feels like those designed runs will be a factor for Cincinnati going forward.
“They’ve got some quarterback draws, and quarterback draw is a new thing probably that they got in the offseason,” Narduzzi said. “They weren’t a big quarterback draw with Malik but there seems to be a lot of quarterback draws with having routes out there, RPO stuff.”
But it was Jones’ arm that stole the show against Eastern Kentucky, and as he boasts a deep, talented wide receiving corps, it will be a strong test for Pitt’s veteran cornerbacks. And Jones has never been afraid to take risks with his arm.
Over his two seasons starting at Florida in 2021 and Arizona State in 2022, Jones has thrown for 4,267 yards with 26 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — completing just about 64% of his pass attempts. And in those 545 attempts, according to PFF, he’s thrown 17 big-time throws and 23 turnover-worthy throws.
He wasn’t helped by 25 drops over the last two seasons either. But there is a way to beat Jones. And that’s to get lots and lots of pressure.
In 2021, Jones was pretty cool when blitzed. But when actual pressure got home, his play deteriorated dramatically. In a clean pocket, he completed 71% of passes for 2,126 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. When pressured, those numbers dropped to 45% completion with two touchdowns and six interceptions.
And it was just as drastic in 2022, with a 43% completion percentage with one touchdown and three picks when pressured. He was afforded a clean pocket in all but five snaps against Eastern Kentucky. That will change against Pitt.
EMORY JONES. THAT’S THE TWEET. pic.twitter.com/m0mnehTPHi
— Cincinnati Football (@GoBearcatsFB) September 3, 2023
But that doesn’t change the fact that Jones is a strong fit in what Satterfield likes to do with his offenses. And a transfer-heavy offense offers a lot of intrigue. But it’s all dependent upon what Jones can do in the system.
Ryan Manalac’s linebacking corps will be called upon in a big way, with Shayne Simon marshaling the unit from the Mike spot, and Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields on the outside. It’s a tough test matching up against an athletic quarterback like Jones, but the linebacking corps has been there before.
“You can certainly see how Emory fits with what coach Satterfield has done in the past with athletic quarterbacks,” Manalac said after Tuesday’s practice. “So, he has that ability to run, they’ve shown draw, they’ve shown the option, he can scramble, so those elements are there. But he also has a live arm, so I think that ingredient makes him a dynamic quarterback. So, it’s 667 yards of offense, and we’ll be ready.”
Both DeShields and Devin Danielson see the similarities between Jones and Cunningham, especially in a Satterfield offense. And both DeShields and Danielson pointed to staying in the blitz lanes, being aggressive and generating pressure from multiple spots across the line. If Jones can’t leave the pocket, he can’t make a play.
And if all 11 Pitt defenders do their jobs, holding to their fits and fulfilling their roles in the defense, it’s a defensive scheme designed to slow any rushing attack. And that, of course, comes with teeing off the opposing quarterback, too.
It’s a Pitt defense that thrives on generating pressure and getting to opposing quarterbacks, but especially in the case of a quarterback like Jones, the entire unit will need to be disciplined.
“It can be tough at times, you get tempted to take an inside move, but then you risk losing contain,” Danielson said after practice Tuesday. “It’s all about calculating your risk versus the reward of it, and if you can fix it if you don’t make the move.”
It’s about making sure that at least one Pitt defender gets to the quarterback and wraps him up, dragging him to the ground and ensuring the play is over. Because if Jones gets into space, he’s tough to bring down. And he has a deep stable of wide receivers to utilize this season.
Xzavier Henderson, who played at Florida over the last three seasons, emerged in a big way last weekend, hauling in seven receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown. He was nearly perfect downfield, hauling in all of his targets beyond 10 yards — and both beyond 20 yards.
Barry Jackson Jr. and Dee Wiggins received just one target each but turned those targets into 65 and 39-yard touchdowns, respectively. And Braden Smith, who followed Satterfield from Louisville, caught four balls for 72 yards and a touchdown.
It isn’t the most experienced unit, but it is a big-play offense that has already had success this season, and the Pitt defensive backs will have their hands full downfield as the defensive front attempts to bring Jones down.
It’s a tough yet expected early test for the Pitt defense. And it’s one that the defense looks forward to attacking.