Charlie Jones Michigan State

Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Charlie Jones (16) returns a punt for a touchdown against the Michigan State Spartans Saturday, November 7, 2020 at Kinnick Stadium. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Charlie Jones was making an impact at the University of Buffalo in 2018. 

A redshirt freshman, he played wide receiver and was a return specialist on a 10-4 team that reached the MAC Championship game.

But the native of Deerfield, Ill., wanted to play closer to home. And he always wondered if he could play Power Five football.

“I wanted to play against the best of the best,” he said. “I knew that was the Big Ten.”

When he looked at Iowa, Jones saw a couple of familiar faces. Tim Polasek, Iowa’s offensive line coach, had recruited Jones when he was at North Dakota State.

“I almost went there,” Jones said.

And Keaton Copeland, Iowa’s wide receivers coach, had recruited Jones at Northern Illinois

“I knew (Iowa) was a program where you could really work your way up with hard work,” Jones said. 

So he came to Iowa as a walk-on, and redshirted last season. On Saturday, he was a force in the Hawkeyes’ 49-7 drubbing of Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium.

Jones returned a punt 54 yards for a touchdown and had 143 all-purpose yards. He gained 38 yards on two end-arounds and returned five punts for 105 yards.

Jones plays with a fearless resolve that all good punter returners possess.

“It’s just taking a risk, I guess,” said Jones, who also had a 31-yard punt return on his first attempt Saturday. “On some of those I could fair-catch them. But I take a little bit of a risk and try to make something out of nothing.”

On his touchdown, Jones started right, cut left and zipped down the sideline. Teammate Jestin Jacobs opened the door to the end zone with a block that wiped out two Spartans.

“We had a middle return called,” Jones said. “I took that first step, saw the left side open and got great blocking.”

Polasek and Copeland were confident that Jones could make an impact on the team. But he was more of an acquired taste for Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz.

“He’s shown some signs and all that, and I think some of the assistants were a little more convinced than I was,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes you’ve got to see things. To me, the million-dollar question was going to be when we really saw him in our offense or him returning punts and doing it in live action.”

Ferentz is convinced now. He singled out punter Tory Taylor and Jones for making significant impacts in the Hawkeyes’ first victory of the season after two close losses. 

Iowa quarterback Tyler Petras wasn’t surprised.

“He’s a great player and a good teammate who prepares really well,” Petras said. “I’m really happy he got the success he had today.”

The 6-foot, 187-pound Jones remains a walk-on. 

I just hope to keep working hard, and if that (scholarship) comes then great,” Jones said.

Asked if Jones earned a scholarship with Saturday’s performance, Ferentz said, “He certainly made big steps today.”

It wasn’t the first, or most surprising, Iowa touchdown scored by a guy named Charlie Jones at Kinnick Stadium.

That one happened in 1981, in a game against Indiana, when Coach Hayden Fry dug deep into his bag of tricks. 

“One Play Charlie,” recalled Ferentz, who was in his first season as Iowa’s offensive line coach.

Fry had recruited a sprinter and long jumper on the track team, named Charles Jones. He was a 22-year-old senior who had never played in an organized football game before. 

Jones had figured his college athletic career had ended when he finished second in the 55 meters and fourth in the 100 meters at the 1980 Big Ten Indoor Championships.

But Fry came calling, and wondered if the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Jones would want to try and use his speed on the football field.  

Jones agreed. And Fry waited for the right time to unveil his secret weapon. It came against Indiana on Oct. 10, 1981. Iowa and Indiana were tied, 7-7. Iowa had a first down at its own 49. 

Fry snuck Jones into the game and lined him up in the tight end position, next to the right tackle. Jones hesitated for a second then sprinted up the field. There wasn’t a defender within 20 yards of Jones when he hauled in quarterback Gordy Bohannon’s pass for a touchdown. Iowa went on to win the game, 42-28.

The play to Jones, one that Indiana Coach Lee Corso had used successfully when his team rallied from a 26-3 halftime deficit to spoil Fry’s debut as Iowa coach in 1979, was the talk of the game.

“I’ve never experienced that kind of excitement before in my life,” Jones told reporters afterwards. “I’ve been in a lot of athletic competition before, but never anything like this.”

Ferentz remembered the play well. He recalled that Jones had lined up in the tight end spot on the right side. He chuckled as he recalled the moment.

“The play was called Y-Split,” Ferentz said. “It went for a touchdown and we needed one, so it was pretty good. We ran it to the south end zone.”