Virginia senior tailback Perry Jones’ versatility persuaded high school teammates and coaches to begin calling him “Superman.”
As he prepares for the second game of his final college season, “Superman” finds himself surrounded by other powerful and elusive men.
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound Jones runs behind polished 6-foot-6 tackles Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi, receives handoffs and passes from savvy junior quarterback Michael Rocco and entrusts sophomores Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd when he needs a rest.
The combination presents problems for Penn State, which allowed 301 yards in the second half of last week’s 24-14 loss to Ohio University. The Nittany Lions (0-1) and Cavaliers (1-0) meet at noon today in Charlottesville, Va.
“It’s a good challenge for us,” Penn State safety Malcolm Willis said. “It’s not just the backs that they have. They have a good quarterback and a lot of playmakers just like Ohio did.”
Jones is listed as a tailback. But he handles multiple roles for the Cavaliers, rushing for 915 yards and catching 48 passes for 506 yards last season. If asked, Jones could line up in the secondary.
He’s not the Cavaliers’ only igniter.
Parks and Shepherd are also 5-foot-8. The trio each gained 49 or more yards to help Virginia rush for 184 yards in a 43-19 season-opening victory over Richmond.
Jones calls himself an “all-round player,” says opponents underestimate Parks’ power and describes Shepherd as being “very quick.”
Tracking the trio can be befuddling.
“One thing I noticed about them is that they have really good feet,” Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “They make cuts on a dime. We really have to focus on tackling well and not letting them break loose when we have them in a hole.”
Spotting the duo behind Moses and Aboushi, two of the ACC’s top tackles, can be tough. They anchor a starting line that averages 302 pounds per player. The Cavaliers’ smallest starting lineman is 6-foot-5 left guard Conner Davis. The lightest is 280-pound right guard Sean Cascarano. The center is 6-foot-6, 295-pound junior Luke Bowanko.
The Nittany Lions’ interior performance against Ohio, which allowed just one tackle for a loss, raises questions about their ability to prevent Virginia from running downhill. Given time to throw, Rocco, a second-year starter and son of former Penn State quarterback Frank Rocco Jr., makes quality decisions.
“I think our defensive line will be up to the challenge,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “They’re a good defensive line, and they can’t wait to play. It will be a challenge for them because it’s a big front. They have some really good players on offense.”
Failing to contain Jones and his helpers would put Penn State in a rare early-season hole. The Nittany Lions have started 0-2 just nine times in the program’s 126-year history.
“We don’t want Ohio to beat us two times and coming out and basically laying an egg this week,” Hill said. “We are very focused on getting our assignments down, playing this week and going out and winning.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy