Despite having all the physical tools -- the height, the speed, the hands, the physicality -- after two years on the roster Jones was on the verge of becoming one of those stories of underachievement that are so common when high school stars try to make the transition to the college game. Even through five games this season, Jones had accumulated only 104 career receiving yards on 12 catches. Against Duke, the junior had 11 catches, a career high in a game, and 121 yards receiving.
What happened? Did the light bulb suddenly go on? The explanation, at least according to Jones, is much simpler.
“Players went down,” Jones said. “We lost Greg [Little] at the beginning, then Zack [Pianalto] in the middle of the season, so I felt that I had to step up and help my team, contribute any way.”
North Carolina has had six players catch passes for at least 200 yards (which has not happened since 1997), but even in a year when the UNC offense spread the ball around, Jones still stood out.
Jones came on in a big way since that slow start. He is now 105 receiving yards short of the 1,000-yard mark – something that looked impossible mid-way through the season. But his reputation coming into North Carolina was that of a difference-maker, and on Saturday evening, he made a difference in the 24-19 win over Duke.
“Dwight made some big plays,” head coach Butch Davis said. “His 11 catches a lot of times bailed us out.”
Big players shine in big situations, and none was bigger than Jones’s 35-yard reception on third-and-eight which he brought in at the three-yard line, leading to a Shaun Draughn touchdown run one play later that put the Tar Heels up 24-10 in the fourth quarter. That touchdown proved to be the margin of victory. It was a critical play at a critical time in the game – one that a clutch player makes.
It wasn’t Jones’s only contribution to the UNC offense moving the chains during the game, and it was those big catches on third down by Jones and other UNC players that the Duke players felt was particularly frustrating.
“That was a really key factor in the game,” Duke safety Matt Daniels said. “I’m not sure what their third down conversions were, but I’m pretty sure they converted on almost every third down they had."
The Tar Heels didn’t convert them all, but they did convert 11 of 17, or 64 percent of their third down plays, their highest percentage of the season by a wide margin (56 percent against William & Mary was their highest prior conversion percentage). The inability of Duke to get Jones and the offense off the field resulted in 519 yards of total offense, the most in any game since 2004 against Miami.
“(Offensive coordinator John) Shoop, he always has a scheme for everybody,” Jones said. “We basically just go off on how the defense plays, and today the way the defense played it gave us a couple of opportunities to catch some balls today.”
Jones is building a reputation as a difference-maker, but he has also grown as a wide receiver, willing to do all the things that are necessary to excel at the position, including blocking. Jones throws such devastating blocks during at game that at times in seems as though defensive backs actually begin to shy away from contact with the 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver.
“To catch passes, it’s cool,” Jones said, “But I like blocking for my running backs, too.”
He likes to keep things simple, and over the course of this season he’s become what he seemed destined to be all those years ago at Burlington Cummings High School – simply a difference maker.