Grab Art

Catching Is a Craft for Cal Wide Receiver Marvin Jones

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Marvin Jones, Sr., knew the transformation was coming.

After all, it was only his son's first year of organized football. The kid was seven, playing tailback for the Santa Ana Redskins. Already fast. But from the moment that he first put on the helmet and pads, his dad -- the former All-American wrestler at San Jose State -- saw the slightest hint of timidness.

It wasn't that the kid was scared to get hit, he just didn't go looking for contact. He'd take a hit rather than dish it out. Until one day, partway through that first season, he came home from football in tears.

"Marvin," Jones, Sr., remembers saying, "one day something's going to happen. Someone's going to hit you to cause you to switch from the timid side to the intensity side."

Later in the year, the kid came to a halt while running the ball during a game and was knocked flat on his back. The tears started welling up again. This time, though, they meant something different: The transformation was complete.

"It's like something snapped in him," says Marvin Sr. "He got tired of being knocked down. Which turned him into the best player on his football team."

Marvin Jones, Jr., finished that first year of Pop Warner football with one touchdown. The next season, his father remembers, he scored 25. Whatever had snapped inside him, making him the hitter rather than the hittee, had also piqued his interest in frequent visits to the end zone.

And it sparked one more trait in Marvin, Jr., that -- 10 years later -- would begin to define him. It started early, in kids' games of three flies up, when he would battle older friends, older cousins, and beat them to three more often than not. It carried into his first year of high school, when he was a tailback in Etiwanda High's Wing-T offense, but would still be spread out wide when the coaches felt like they needed a big reception.

It made his transition to full-time receiver as a sophomore an easy one, and helped land him at Cal, where the 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore has become a favorite target for quarterback Kevin Riley and the closest thing to a go-to receiver that the Bears have had since DeSean Jackson bolted early for the NFL.

It's the need, the thirst, the insatiable desire to come down with any ball -- any ball -- thrown in his direction.

"I always loved catching," says Marvin Jr. "I always feel like when the ball's in the air, I'd just get up and go get it, from an early age. It's like an art to me. When I see the ball in the air, it's just, I know I'm going to catch it. That's what mindset I have. I just love the ball."

From what we've seen from Marvin Jones, Jr., already this season, who would doubt him?

His first catch of the year, six minutes into the Bears' opener against Maryland, was sensational -- a post from quarterback Kevin Riley, thrown slightly behind him, so that he had to leap and pirouette in midair, spear the ball with his hands and hold on while he landed on his back.

Last weekend at UCLA, he was better. Jones caught two touchdowns (his second and third of the year), while taking over the team lead in receptions (15) and receiving yards (260).

The second touchdown was another exhibition in acrobatics. Riley threw up a corner route to Jones -- one-on-one with cornerback Alterraun Verner -- and Jones again had to make a midair adjustment, going full-extension with his arms and again securing the landing with Verner coming down on top of him.

It's become something of the norm.

"I'm not even shocked no more," says receiver Jeremy Ross. "I'm actually not even blown away by his catches, because he's so consistent with it, it's just become like a regular hitch route.

"Every time he makes a great play, I'm just like, 'Oh, that's Marv, that's what he does.' I can expect it. That's why quarterbacks look at him, because it's like, 'I throw it up, he's going to go get that thing.'"

Riley has talked often about the confidence that he has already developed in Jones. Jones played in five games last season as a freshman, missing the better part of the year with an injury. He recovered fairly quickly and still took reps with the first- and second-team offense in practice, but it wasn't until the offseason that he and Riley really started to click.

"I'd say immediately after the (Emerald Bowl last season)," says Jones. "We came back that spring, this spring ball, this first camp after that season, and that's when we started hitting it off. It's been good ever since."

What you see is a trust between the two. Riley feels comfortable throwing a deep ball and letting Jones go after it. Jones feels like he has to catch every one. It's simple.

"When you keep on catching the ball," says Riley, "the ball's going to come to you."

Receivers coach Kevin Daft, a former NFL quarterback who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 1999, has the same confidence in the sophomore from Etiwanda, Calif.

"When that ball's in the air, he's very selfish that he's the one that's going to catch it -- selfish in a good way," says Daft. "I played quarterback, and I would love throwing to Marv just because I know that he's going to come down with the ball. And if he's not, I know the other guy -- the defensive back -- is not going to come down with the ball."

Catching, Jones says, is an art. And it's one that can get lost in all the other things -- like speed, route-running or flair -- that people admire about receivers.

"People underestimate the ability to catch," says Jones. "They think it's just like, pop, catch it. When you think it's the easy part, that's when you get a lot of drops."

Take the touchdown over Verner. Jones already has outstanding leaping ability -- partly a product of basketball, which his father originally thought he would play -- and enormous hand strength, which we'll get to in a minute. But so do a lot of receivers. And, as Daft says, "not everyone can make that catch."

There's just so much going on in the split second when Jones hauls that ball in. He's running full speed, for one thing, so everything around him -- his helmet included -- appears to be shaking. The result is a blurred football coming down out of the air, which might not be a perfect spiral in the first place.

"You just see the ball in a smear," says Ross. "All you can do is locate the ball and see that this is where the area of the ball is, I'm just going to throw my hands up where I think it's going to be."

Jones is also dealing with the angle of the ball that appears to be coming from behind him, evidenced by his turn in midair. Turning and locating it -- what Daft calls "tracking the ball" -- is made a lot tougher by the helmet and shoulder pads, which restrict his peripheral vision and how much he can turn his neck. Not to mention fighting the preseason All-American in Verner, whose job it is to move Jones' hands out of the way and disrupt his grip on the way down.

"When the ball's in the air, you get to know where it's going to land, what point do I have to catch it at, when the defender's coming do I have to stop my route and jump up and catch it," says Jones. "When you do stuff like that, when you just take pride in catching the ball, it comes easy."

A big part of what makes Jones such an attractive target is what Daft terms his "catching range."

"Anything around him he's going to catch," says Daft. "A guy who's maybe not as tall, can't jump as high, doesn't have as long of arms, doesn't have as big of hands -- he has all those things -- but those guys won't come up with those balls. Those will go off their fingertips, where Marv will catch them. It's a big deal."

And then there's the hand strength.

When Marvin Jr., was nine years old, his father started training for the Orange County Sheriff's Academy. Marvin Sr., was trying out with two or three other people, and Marvin Jr., wanted to tag along to one of his dad's training sessions. Naturally, they brought a football.

"We were throwing the ball back and forth as we were running," says Marvin Sr. "And I said, 'Daddy's got to go to work out now.' So I took off and turned around, and he was right behind me with his football."

Ball in arm, the kid ran the training obstacle course right behind his father, only dropping it when they came to the course's rope. As a kid, Marvin Jr., liked climbing ropes. So why should this one have been any different? A rope is a rope, right? As Marvin Sr., watched his fellow trainees struggle to pull themselves up, his son went quickly up to the top and back down.

"He had considerable hand strength for his age," recalls Marvin Sr. "Even at the church picnics and family outings, how he would jump and catch. Just his hand and forearm strength is astounding."

This past summer, Marvin Sr., saw firsthand just how strong that grip is. For the first time, his son beat him in arm wrestling at a Fourth of July picnic -- something that, he says, had a profound effect on both of them.

"My boy had grown up to the point where he could battle me in a one-on-one, man-to-man contest and win," he says.

Hearing each talk about the other, it's obvious that their connection runs deep. The kid credits the father with keeping him humble and helping develop his skills. The father likes the fact that he managed to do so for years without Marvin Jr., even knowing it -- just playing chase, playing tag, playing catch. Running around with Dad. Honing abilities like speed and agility through fun, not force.

Even when Marvin Jr., got a little bigger, his father -- who doesn't sound like he's lost much in the way of fitness since his wrestling days -- pulled out his old football pads and they would go at each other in the yard.

"He took it lightly," laughs Marvin Jr. "He still put a hurtin' on me."

But the key was that the kid had fun with it. One time the ear pad was lost from his helmet before a contact session. Instead of stopping, they wadded up some paper towels and toilet tissue, stuffed it in place of the pad and hit anyway.

"He still put 'em on," says Marvin Sr. "I could see the desire in his eyes. It just goes back to how he had fun developing his character, his intensity and his will."

Now 19 years old, the kid appreciates how he was raised. The physicality, the intensity -- they were there to help him, but not necessarily guide him. He was supported rather than pushed. He quit football for a time to focus on basketball, then dropped basketball to go back to football. His father stood behind each decision.

"He wasn't hard on me," says Marvin Jr. "You see a lot of people that's hard on their kids and stuff like that, and then they lose love for the game. But he was never on me."

The one rule was no celebrating after a touchdown. No showing off or showboating. So all he does is point -- towards his family.

And the result was that Marvin Jr., now says that his progression as a football player was "natural." He did it through the time spent with his father, which he still refers to as "playing." In particular, he attributes his ability to catch a football to "the playing aspect -- just playing in general."

That's why, when he was offered a scholarship by Cal, 17 years old and coming out of high school, he still went outside and caught passes from Marvin Sr.

And it might explain why he feels so comfortable, so confident, every time he sees a pass floated his way, distractions and defenders be damned. Why he gets so angry when he drops a ball, in a game or in little ball drills during practice. Why he feels like he should -- not can, but should -- make a play on every ball that's thrown in his general vicinity.

"When I catch it," he says, "it's just ... me."


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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