MOON — Seven months ago, five-star recruit Paul Jones had slipped to No. 3 on Penn State’s quarterback depth chart.
Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien informed Jones he wanted to move him to tight end.
Jones, who had been a quarterback since he was 13, wasn’t thrilled. He quit the team for about 20 minutes, but then changed his mind and returned.
By late September, Jones finally had enough of the tight end experiment.
He still had a desire to play quarterback and left the Penn State football program for good.
His three seasons of Unhappy Valley were dogged by academic struggles and a lack of playing time at the Division I-A level.
In October, Jones visited a number of colleges, including Robert Morris, a Division I-AA school that is located less than 10 miles from where he starred as a high school quarterback at Sto-Rox.
In November, Jones announced via Twitter that he was transferring to Robert Morris, which is a three-hour drive from University Park. He did so in January and finally seems to be at peace with himself.
“I really don’t think it’s been that big of an adjustment for me, going from Division I-A to I-AA, but it is different being here,” Jones said last week before a Robert Morris spring practice. “It’s a much smaller school than Penn State. You’re not in the microscope as much.
“This place is very low-key. I like it a lot. It’s easy to walk around campus and make friends outside of football. There’s a lot less stress here.”
Penn State is a public school with close to 45,000 students at its main campus, which is spread over 5,448 rural acres.
Robert Morris is a private 230-acre college with 5,000 students located 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
Robert Morris’ Joe Walton Stadium, named for the current coach, seats 3,000 fans. The Colonials play in the Northeast Conference.
Penn State’s Beaver Stadium holds 107,000. The Nittany Lions compete in the much more prestigious Big Ten Conference.
Now, rather than competing against a powerhouse program like Michigan, Jones will be facing lesser-known schools such as Monmouth.
Jones, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt junior who is battling sophomore Derik Abbott for the Colonials’ starting quarterback job, said he’s OK with the diminished exposure.
“As long as the football field is 100 yards long, that is all I care about,” Jones said. “I’d be lying if I said I won’t miss playing against Michigan and Big Ten schools like that, but I’ve got to deal with what I have in front of me.”
Walton, 77, is the only football coach in Robert Morris history. Walton is entering his 20th and final season. He will retire after the 2013 campaign, having built the program into an annual contender in the NEC.
He estimated he has had 25 Division I-A transfers through the years, but said Jones is the first quarterback.
Jones, rated the No. 2 prep quarterback in the country by Scout.com as a high school senior, had one career catch for seven yards and one run for minus-7 yards at Penn State.
“At this point in his life, I think this is definitely the place for Paul,” Walton said. “The thing is, a lot of kids get lost in the shuffle at a place as big as Penn State. But here, Paul seems very comfortable with his teammates. He’s been making friends fast.”
Jones said he still keeps in touch with some of his former Nittany Lions teammates, even as he adjusts to his new surroundings.
“He’s doing fine academically so far,” Walton said. “And I just think he’s very, very relaxed right now. He’s very confident. He takes good notes in the meetings. He’s very attentive. I think he’s ready to go out and play and prove himself.”
Walton, like O’Brien, has NFL experience on his resume and runs a pro-style offense.
Walton was a two-time All-American tight end at Pitt who played seven years in the NFL. He also had a long coaching stint in the league. He served as the head coach of the New York Jets from 1983-89 and spent two years as the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll in 1990-91.
“I still have a lot of contacts from my days in the NFL,” said Walton, who was named the first coach at Robert Morris in July of 1993. “Paul definitely can get noticed here. But one thing I tell him and the rest of the kids is that you have to dominate at this level.
“I think he’ll be surprised by how good the competition is.”
There are some similarities between the two offensive schemes run by Walton and O’Brien.
“Paul’s been doing a good job of learning our system this spring,” Walton said. “I am expecting and hoping that by the time fall comes, Paul has a pretty good idea of what we’re trying to do on offense.
“I have been impressed. He moves very well in the pocket. He has good feet and a really good arm. And he is a very good athlete and has the skills it takes to play quarterback, I believe.”
Walton has sent offensive lineman Hank Fraley and running back Tim Hall to the NFL. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is a Robert Morris graduate and frequent visitor to Colonials’ practices.
“Coach Walton has a lot of NFL experience, a lot of contacts, so it would be silly for me not to listen to him,” said Jones, who has two years of eligibility remaining.
“He has already helped me in a lot of ways. He has taught me some things that some people have forgotten about. He has taught me the 7-step drop and he focuses a lot on footwork when I’m dropping back to pass.”
Jones, one of 38 scholarship players on the Robert Morris roster, has yet to attempt a pass in his college career. Abbott has attempted only one pass, an incompletion.
You may recall, Jones was the star of Penn State’s 2010 Blue-White Game after rifling two 18-yard touchdown passes to wide receiver Shawney Kersey. Jones, then a freshman, finished 5 of 8 for 67 yards in that game, but that pretty much was the highlight of his career.
So far, at least.
Ironically, just like Penn State, Robert Morris will wrap up its spring practice session Saturday with its annual scrimmage.
Jones hopes to make a big impression on his new teammates.
“I just want to play well in the spring game and give people a glimpse of what they can expect to see from me as a quarterback in the future,” Jones said.
His future seems a little bit brighter now than it has for quite some time.
Ron Musselman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.