Catching Up With… PRESTON JONES
Upon his signing with Georgia in 1988, Preston Jones instantly equipped the Bulldogs with a quarterback like none other they'd featured before. Hailing from South Carolina, the highly-recruited signal-caller was a Parade All-American and a prototype drop-back passer. He stood at 6-foot-4 and more than 200 pounds. To cap the 1988 season at the Gator Bowl—Vince Dooley’s final game at Georgia—the head coach informed Jones that he was the primary reason why he was reluctant to retire.
Unfortunately for Jones, no Bulldog head coach was able to really experience the talent he had demonstrated as a phenom at T.L. Hanna High School. After essentially playing his entire redshirt year with a broken wrist, he entered the 1990 campaign as Georgia’s starter under center—a position he held for only two contests before being sidelined permanently for the season, just six games in. As the Bulldogs’ No. 3 and No. 2 quarterback in 1991 and 1992, respectively, Jones combined to attempt only 19 passes before a disappointing collegiate career came to a close.
Still, Jones was able to overcome the shortcomings he endured at Georgia to play professionally for five seasons. Ever since, he has had a successful banking career in his native hometown. I recently caught up with Preston from his home in Anderson, S.C.
PG: Preston, my first question undoubtedly has to be, why would a highly-touted quarterback from South Carolina want to come to Georgia, especially back when a run-oriented Bulldog offense was only throwing the ball roughly 20 percent of the time?
PJ: And, I guess I was kind of a South Carolina fan at the time because a really good player from my hometown, Chuck Allen, had played defensive tackle for the Gamecocks (1977-1980). But, I'd always watched Georgia when they came on T.V., and they were winning so much at the time. My final schools were Georgia, Clemson, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. But, in the end, I wanted to play for an SEC team and a winning team. Georgia was all that, plus it had an established head coach in Vince Dooley, and was just a little over an hour away from home. They were a running team, but ran out of the I-formation, which was the formation we used in high school. It seemed Georgia was everything I was looking for. So, I felt like I made the right choice.
PG: Considering you signed with Georgia in front of over 100 people at your high school, I’m guessing your Signing Day announcement was rather unorthodox for the time?
PJ: Yes, and the night before, I actually got a call from the governor of the state (Carroll Campbell), asking me to sign with South Carolina. I thought that was pretty neat, but I had already made up my mind. Yeah, no one was really doing that (signing in front of a large crowd) back then, but I didn’t have all the hats out in front of me like they do now. They set up a microphone in the school’s library and people came to watch.
PG: Considering you attended T.L. Hanna, I just have to ask about any experience you had with “Radio” (renowned James Robert “Radio” Kennedy, a mentally challenged man in his early 70s, who will always be a junior at T.L. Hanna while helping out with the school’s athletic teams).
PJ: My dad, Wayne Jones, was an assistant coach at Hanna for 38 years (no relation to Harold Jones, the head football coach at the time). So, I’ve been around Radio my whole life. Radio doesn’t go on any away trips anymore on the bus. But he still comes around the school some. The school and community really look after him.
PG: I also have to ask. You were around when Coach Dooley retired—and just when it looked like Erk Russell was going to become Georgia’s new head coach, followed by Dick Sheridan of NC State, the Bulldogs curiously hired Ray Goff. What was it like to experience what seemed like coaching-hire chaos?
PJ: As players, we didn’t know what was going on. First, we thought Erk was coming, but that didn’t pan out. Dick Sheridan was the big, hot coach at the time, and I liked him a lot. Coach Sheridan was who I was hoping would be our coach, because I had visited NC State as a recruit and already knew him. And he actually did take the job, but things kind of got screwed up. We heard right after the Gator Bowl that Coach Goff had been hired as head coach, and we didn’t know what to think. He had been Georgia’s running backs coach, who hadn’t even been a coordinator, and didn’t seem to even be a possibility at just 33 years old. Nothing against Ray, but the Georgia head-coaching job was over his head. Yet at the same time, it wasn’t his fault. He was kind of put in a difficult situation.
PG: Speaking of being put in a difficult situation, you entered the spring of 1989 battling Greg Talley for the No. 1 quarterback position. Georgia was an injury-filled team, so, for G-Day, you guys had a Players vs. Alumni game instead of the routine intra-squad game. When the team of players was on offense, the Alumni often had 14 or 15 defenders on the field. That’s when you got hurt.
PJ: On the play I got hurt, I threw a screen pass, and about seven of the alumni players tackled me at the same time just as I released the ball. I got my throwing hand trapped behind my back, and some bones popped in my wrist. Nowadays I would have been immediately sent somewhere to have surgery. They would have put a screw in my wrist, and there would have been hardly anything to it. But at the time, no one knew how to diagnose it. So to repair it, I was put in a cast up to my shoulder for 12 weeks. Since there’s not a whole lot of blood flow in your wrist, it never really healed. So essentially, I wound up playing the ’89 season with a broken wrist. After the season I was sent to a specialist in Virginia, who opened my wrist up and said half of the bone in it had died.
PG: You were also a standout baseball player coming out of high school. So the injury also hindered any chances you had for also playing baseball for Georgia, correct?
PJ: I was recruited by Georgia and South Carolina to also play baseball—and, when I signed, my intention was to play both at Georgia. The football coaching staff had a rule that you had to go through spring practice your freshman year (even if it conflicted with playing other sports for the school)—and that first spring practice was when I broke my wrist. After I had my surgery, and by the next baseball season, I was already two years separated from playing baseball, so I didn’t want to try any comeback or anything like that to play baseball.
PG: Silicone was inserted into your wrist by the specialist in Virginia, allowing you to get through the spring of 1990, when you won the No. 1 quarterback job over Greg Talley. Unfortunately, the ’90 team was so injury-riddled and inexperienced, and here you were its starting quarterback—and you had never started a collegiate game…
PJ: And, we had to start the season at LSU. LSU wasn’t nearly as good as they are now but, still, playing them in Death Valley at night isn’t the most ideal situation for your first start. Then, after three starting defensive players were dismissed right before the game, we lose our best wide receiver, Arthur Marshall, in the first quarter (Marshall suffered a broken leg at LSU, sidelining him for the entire season). Also, by that season, the whole “Jan Kemp thing” (resulting in Georgia being placed on minor probation while increasing academic standards) had definitely caught up with the program. The injuries, dismissals, and inexperience kind of snowballed. If there was ever a season for Georgia to open up with, like, Western Carolina (as was the case in 1991), it was 1990.
PG: Still, tell me about the Alabama game that year. Georgia trailed the favored Crimson Tide in Athens by 10 points in the fourth quarter, when you came off the bench to rally the team.
PJ: I started the first two games of the season (LSU, followed by a win over Southern Miss and its senior quarterback, Brett Favre), but then lost my job to Greg. Honestly, I really didn’t understand why I was demoted, but I knew I had to be ready just in case my name was called. It was such a big game, and I was really excited for it, although I had no idea whether I’d play or not. So, we were trailing, 16-6, I believe, and I was put in kind of early in the fourth quarter (10:40 remaining). We drove down, and got a touchdown, and then a two-point conversion. After our defense stopped them, we drove down again, and John Kasay kicked what would be the game-winning field goal to go up by one point. Our defense stopped them again with an interception, and we beat them. A great [17-16] win!
PG: Preston, simply, what happened from there? You’d appear in the next three games—all as a backup—and then didn’t take a snap the final five games of the season.
PJ: Yeah, so the next game against East Carolina, Greg started but was knocked out during the first quarter. I finished up (Jones completed 11 of 17 passes for 131 yards in a win over the Pirates). Greg started at Clemson, but struggled, and then I came in. It was a bad day altogether for our offense against a really, really good Clemson defense (Georgia lost, 34-3). I played a little in a [28-12] loss to Ole Miss and, then, I basically didn’t play the rest of the year. Joe Dupree came in [against Vanderbilt in game seven] and replaced me as the No. 2 quarterback.
PG: And, that spring, highly-regarded freshman quarterback Eric Zeier enrolled early and was essentially considered the starter right off the bat. In fact, Dupree decided to transfer. With both Zeier and Talley both seemingly in front of you, did you consider transferring?
PJ: Actually, Troy State called my dad and asked him if I’d be interested in transferring. But, you know, I loved Georgia. I had all my friends on the team, a girlfriend, and I was in a fraternity. But, mostly, I just thought I was good enough to play at Georgia, so I didn’t want to leave. I really thought that if I was given the opportunity, I could have played—and played well. But, when Eric came in, he immediately played really well. Nowadays, I probably would have transferred—and, if I would have known that I would be playing mop-up duty for the rest of my time at Georgia, it probably would have been best for me to transfer. But, at the time, I was a team player and didn’t want to leave.
PG: Along with Zeier’s arrival in 1991, Georgia also added offensive coordinator Wayne McDuffie, quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger, and a more balanced pro-style offense to replace the run-oriented I-formation. What do you recall about that new offense?
PJ: It was finally a balanced offense where we could effectively throw, yet could utilize running backs like Garrison Hearst—and an offense I was really excited for. Honestly, before Coach Ensminger arrived, I had never been taught how to play quarterback—as far as doing the right drops, reading defenses, how to do progressions, etc. My first three years at Georgia, passing the ball meant to just drop back and try to find somebody open. I was finally fully taught how to play the position—but not until my redshirt junior year, when my college playing days were basically over. But, at the same time, although I didn’t play much for Georgia my final two years, the new offense and Coach Ensminger prepared me to play football at the professional level.
DAWG BITE: Preston Jones was the first Bulldog in history (and there’s only been one since) to pass for at least one touchdown in four consecutive seasons yet never lead the team in annual passing. To date, Jones also ranks second at UGA in career passing yards (1,066) of those who never led the Bulldogs in annual passing (Cory Phillips, who passed for 1,378 yards from 1999-2002, ranks first).
PG: And, that’s where there is some irony, you could say, in all of this. After starting only two games and playing sparingly your final two-and-a-half years, you make an NFL 53-man roster right out of Georgia, right?
PJ: Yes, I beat out Casey Weldon, who finished runner-up in the ’91 Heisman Trophy balloting, for the No. 3 quarterback for Philadelphia. I was with the Eagles in 1993 and 1994 and signed with Atlanta Falcons in 1995. I was cut by Atlanta, but head coach June Jones told me to come back the next season. In the meantime, I played some in the Canadian league before being drafted in the fourth round of the World Football League by the London Monarchs. I started for the Monarchs for the 1996 season and the beginning of ’97 before blowing out my knee. I tore my knee up pretty bad and had to have reconstructive knee surgery. I’d never play football again—but had a lot of fun while in the World League.
PG: Did you learn anything from your post-Georgia playing experience?
PJ: Yes, it proved to me that I was good enough to play and start at that level of professional football. It took some of the self-doubt I had while playing for Georgia because, I’ll admit, there was a time at Georgia where I started to question myself if that was about as good as I was going to get playing football.
PG: After your surgery and rehab, where did you go from there?
PJ: When I had reconstructive surgery, I was 28 years old, having played five years at Georgia and five years of pro football, and I was kind of worn out. If I had to do it over again, I would have probably taken a year off and tried to come back to play football and, from there, maybe eventually get into coaching at the college or pro level. But, at the time, I was looking to settle down, buy a house, and all, so I got into banking, and have been in banking ever since.
PG: Please tell me about your family.
PJ: My wife, Katherine, who is from Atlanta, and I have a daughter, Madison, who just turned 18. We also have two sons, Kameron, who is 15, and Kory, who is 12.
PG: Finally, between the wrist injury, you being benched, Eric Zeier’s arrival to Georgia, etc., is it safe to say that perhaps you didn’t have success at Georgia because of bad timing?
PJ: Yeah, that’s maybe fair. But, I’ll tell you, I pull for Georgia. I watch all their games. My sons are big Georgia fans. We all went to the National Championship Game last year. So, I’m part of a big Georgia football family. But I do look back on my career and see it more as a disappointment, wishing it had worked out better. Maybe things could have been different, but they weren’t—and that’s okay.