During his 18-year tenure in Charlottesville, reticent Virginia coach George Welsh has heaped praise upon individual players about as often as BYU has employed the wishbone offense. If anyone can buck that trend, though, it is Thomas Jones, whose 374 rushing yards over the past two weeks, coupled with his monster 1,303-yard 1998 campaign, have Welsh stringing together superlatives like Dick Vitale.
"I can't see anybody in the country being better than him -- it would be impossible," Welsh said. "He's catching the ball, blocking, making spectacular runs and making people miss. Who else in the country is better than him?"
No one, at least according to Jones' Cavalier mates, who witness his brilliance firsthand every Saturday.
"He's awesome," quarterback Dan Ellis said. "He's a big game player. From where I'm standing he's the best tailback I've ever seen and ever played with, and I've seen a lot of good ones."
That greatness was on full display Saturday night, when the Big Stone Gap, Va., native utilized a combination of power and speed, not to mention the ankle-breaking cutback that has become his pet move en route to 210 yards on the ground, a personal best.
His career game comes on the heels of a 164-yard effort against Wake Forest, reinforcing a fact his teammates already know: No matter the opponent, no matter the odds, Jones just keeps getting better, churning out yard after yard in the process.
"I'm a huge fan of Thomas Jones," guard Noel LaMontagne said. "He surprises me every week. He improves by leaps and bounds every time I see him. I just love the guy.
"I started playing when Thomas started, and the question used to be could he do it. Now the question isn't whether he can do it, but how far he can go," LaMontagne said.
Every player you talk to has a favorite Thomas Jones memory, a move or play that continues to stun to this very day.
Jones provided first-year wide receiver Tavon Mason with a lifetime of highlights in a few scintillating seconds against Wake Forest. On a third and five, Ellis, immediately recognizing a Demon Deacon blitz, loped backward about three paces before quickly dumping the ball off to Jones in the left flat. A simple screen pass the Cavaliers practiced repeatedly in practice, a result no one could have predicted.
"He catches that quick pass out of the backfield, and he's running while I'm way down the field blocking," Mason said. "All of a sudden, he's cutting across the field, and there's all kinds of black shirts coming at me because you see him cutting, cutting, cutting. It's like 'How do you block it?' because you're blocking one way, and then you see this little blur. No. 6 is coming across the field. You're trying to help him, but you sit there and watch and shake your head like 'man.'"
Thirty-five yards later, Jones transformed an ordinary screen into one of the more exhilarating gains in Cavalier football history.
While each Cavalier recalls a particularly special Jones moment, everyone agrees that there is no better teammate than the Heisman-contending running back, whose mellow approach, relentless work ethic and unbending care for his teammates set a more important example than any highlight reel scamper.
"You can talk to him about anything," Mason said. "That's what I like about him. You can probably find some guys who sit on a high horse, but he's not like that. He wants to help the team. It's not like 'I'm U.Va.' When he scores, he celebrates with us. We're going to walk together."
Jones' words, however, remain grounded and focus singularly on winning, not on decorating his mantle.
"I'll do whatever I have to for us to win, that's the main thing," Jones said. "As long as we're winning, it really doesn't matter. I'm proud of myself if I go out and have a good game. I'm proud that I practiced hard all week and was able to go out and perform and help the team win."
But don't mistake selflessness for lack of confidence -- Jones knows he can perform.
"I prepared really hard for this season," Jones said. "I lifted harder in the offseason, watched film and worked out. I know that I can go out there and make plays."
Charlottesville knows what Jones can do. Now the rest of the country, once too infatuated with Ron Dayne and Jamal Lewis to give Jones the time of day, is beginning to catch on as well.
National acclaim has a way of breeding Heisman attention. But one person, perhaps the only one, not listening to the hype is Jones himself.
"I've still got [seven] games left," Jones. "I could go out next game and have 50 yards and it'd be all for nothing. Every game I have to go out and play hard regardless of what anybody says."
Prodding the always soft-spoken Jones into declaring himself the nation's finest runner is like pulling teeth, perhaps even proving to be a tougher task than stopping the seemingly unstoppable back. LaMontagne, however, is more than willing to squash all controversy.
"He's the best running back in the nation," he said. "Thomas is head and shoulders above every running back in the nation, regardless of who's getting all the attention. He's just a very well-rounded back -- the best I've ever seen"