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A Smart Move : Academics Swayed Michael Jones in Decision to Stay at Montclair Prep

Times Staff Writer

Montclair Prep Principal V. E. Simpson turns to the computer next to his desk, punches up the file on Michael Jones, the Mounties’ standout running back, and points to the numbers with pride.

These numbers have nothing to do with football, although Jones has posted impressive statistics in the team’s first three games. The 6-foot, 1-inch, 205-pound junior has rushed for 351 yards and 4 touchdowns in 66 carries.

Montclair Prep officials expected as much after Jones ran for 683 yards and 9 touchdowns last season in a part-time role. But no such assumptions were made about his success in the classroom.

Jones struggled in the ninth grade at his new school. He posted a 2.2 grade-point average with a “couple of Ds” in lower-level classes, but a student needs a 2.7 grade-point average to play varsity sports at the academically rigid Van Nuys school.

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By his own admission Jones had a bad attitude toward class work. He also was caught leaving campus without permission more than once, according to Simpson, who had several conferences with Jones’ parents and threatened expulsion.

“Academically it’s very difficult here,” Jones said. “I just needed time to adjust to the system and the teachers here. I wasn’t illiterate or anything like that, but it’s not like public school where you can kick back and get by.”

After noticing the problem, Simpson arranged for a private tutor. The principal said that he gives extra attention to any of the school’s 250 pupils who need it. Jones’ athletic ability was not a factor, Simpson said.

“Michael needs a lot of guidance,” he said. “There are times when he needs a kick in the pants and there are times when he needs words of encouragement. He responds to both equally well.”

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Simpson pointed to Jones’ current numbers as proof.

“Michael is now in an advanced-level physiology class and he’s in our normal college-prep classes in everything else,” Simpson said. “He had a 3.3 grade-point average last year. He’s going to meet any NCAA requirement easily.”

Jones’ father, Gregory Jones, enrolled his son at Montclair Prep after Michael attended A. E. Wright, a public junior high school in Calabasas. Gregory, who played football at USC as a walk-on in 1973-74, did not want his son to experience the same post-football trauma he endured.

“I went through school a pretty good player,” Gregory said. “Then I got to Division I, and there were a lot of players better than me. I always wanted to play pro ball, and then I realized not everybody gets to play in the pros. I wasn’t prepared at all for anything that happened after football.”

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Simpson’s extra effort paid off this summer when Jones decided to stay at Montclair Prep, a Southern Section Division IX school, instead of transferring to Alemany, a Division I school. Coach Pat Blackburn left Montclair Prep last year to become coach at Alemany and Tyler Robuck, a highly touted running back, went with him.

Blackburn coached Jones this summer at a football camp in Riverside where Jones was the camp MVP among a field of 600 high school players.

Jones contacted Alemany about transferring. Because his family had moved during the summer from Calabasas to Canoga Park, he could have changed schools without losing a year of eligibility. But Jones decided to stay after meeting with new Montclair Prep Coach George Giannini and because of his loyalty to Simpson.

Michael’s father said that the decision to stay was based solely on academics, not football.

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“We had opportunities to go to several schools, including Alemany, but we turned them down because the academics at Montclair are superior,” said Gregory, an electrical engineer. “And deep down inside, I felt an obligation to the school.”

So Jones pulls into the parking lot at Montclair Prep every morning. And even among the BMWs and Mercedes, his red 1986 Mustang GT, with its 5.0 liter V-8 engine, stands out. But when Giannini thinks of his running back, he thinks of another kind of Mustang, one who played at Southern Methodist University.

“Michael runs just like Eric Dickerson,” Giannini said. “He runs straight upright.”

This season Giannini is working to refine Jones’ natural ability, making him concentrate on getting 3 or 4 yards per play instead of trying to score on every down.

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A wild horse needs taming.

“Michael’s not anywhere close to his potential,” Giannini said. “If we just pitched the ball to him and let him run, then he’s not learning. He has such ability that he could do things on his own. But that’s my job as a high school coach.”

Jones lines up eight yards deep in the Mounties’ I formation, which allows him to hit the hole with great acceleration. He has ample speed to turn the corner and is unafraid of bucking heads with a linebacker.

“If I can get him 1-on-1 with any defensive back, we’ll win the game,” Giannini said. “Michael will either outrun him or run him over.”

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Giannini is not alone in his assessment of Jones’ potential.

Simi Valley Coach Dave Murphy, after Jones rushed for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Pioneers, said Jones was the best back he has seen in the past two years, including Channel Islands’ John Johnson, considered one of the top recruits in the state.

Foster Anderson, a former assistant at USC who now runs the Sports Search scouting service, says that Jones is one of the top four local running back prospects.

The Trojan connection is strong in the Jones family. While playing defensive back for the Trojans, Gregory became good friends with Anthony Davis and Marvin Cobb, now an assistant athletic director at USC. For inspiration, Jones watches a film of USC’s 55-24 victory in 1974 against Notre Dame when Davis scored 4 times to rally the Trojans from a 24-0 deficit.

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“I’d like to see all my boys go to USC,” Gregory said. Gregory’s other sons are Demetrius, a 6-6, 270-pound lineman at Ventura College and Gregory Jr., a junior teammate of Michael’s.

Michael might have a surprise for his father. Although he has drawn interest from more than a dozen Division I universities--including USC, UCLA, Nebraska and Oklahoma, Michael’s favorite team is 3,000 miles from the statue of Tommy Trojan.

“I really want to go to Miami,” Michael said.

Jones’ immediate plans are to help the Mounties (2-1) win the Alpha League title, but his comments indicate he ponders his distant future as well.

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“I can be as good as good can get,” he said.


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