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Jones stays humble with NFL career on horizon

Thomas Jones is sick of the comparisons.

First the gridiron experts likened him to Tiki Barber, his predecessor in the Cavalier backfield. Then they sized him up against Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. Now, with fewer than 48 hours separating Jones from a top-10 selection in Saturday's NFL Draft he's suddenly Marshall Faulk reborn or even the second coming of Emmitt Smith.

But not in Jones' mind.

"If you had a brother, you wouldn't want to be compared to him all the time," Jones said. "I was compared to Tiki, but it turned out that I had more yards than he did. Not many people thought I could do that, but I established my own niche."

Don't mistake Jones' quiet confidence for arrogance. He simply wants to be accepted as the first coming of Thomas Jones, not the second coming of anyone else.

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    In fact, if Jones is not the first running back off the board, it certainly won't be because of something he said. One could legitimately contend that if robust Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis dons a cap prior to the Cavalier All-American, it may be because Jones didn't say enough.

    But in an age of strutters and celebrators, Jones isn't about to apologize for refusing to read his own press clippings. And he isn't in any hurry to justify his modest personality. That's just Thomas.

    "Staying humble is the reason I'm where I am," Jones said. "I've always been a humble person. I feel that if I stay humble and keep after it, good things will happen."

    Thus far, the soft-spoken Jones' prognostications have been unfailingly true. Good things have indeed happened to this small-town boy. Lots of good things.

    First the Big Stone Gap, Va. native earned the nod as the successor to Barber's distinguished throne. Then he shattered that legacy and built one of his own that is unlikely to be matched in the near future. He amassed 3,101 yards over the past two seasons, including a Virginia single-season record 1,798 yards in 1999, led all ACC backs in receptions in 1998 and earned a 1999 First-Team All-American selection in the process.

    Beyond the numbers, Jones garnered more than just the respect of his coaches and teammates. They revered him. He even had the reticent George Welsh gushing.

    "I can't see anybody in the country being better than him," Welsh remarked after Jones' 210 yard outburst against BYU Sept. 25. "How could anyone be better than him? All the superlatives you can think of."

    After an Indianapolis combine saw the 216-pounder motor 40 yards in a mere 4.45 seconds, draft gurus and NFL suitors are now the ones salivating.

    Unlike the ever-modest Jones, draft pundits and general managers have no problem lionizing the man widely considered the premier backfield prospect in Saturday's first round.

    "He's going to be a prime runner," Tom Hepler of Ourlad's Scouting Services said. "I think he has Barry Sanders impact. I think he has Emmitt Smith impact. I can't see him not fitting into a system."

    Neither can The Sporting News' Dan Pompei, who shrugs off the thought that Lewis may outshine Jones as the class' preeminent runner. Lewis may be the hot pick after the 230-pounder blazed a 4.40 in the 40-year dash, but Jones is the best choice.

    "It's often fashionable to target a best player in the long run," Pompei said. "I think Jones is and will be every bit the player Lewis is. The consensus is that he's been the top back in this draft all along."

    Finding shortcomings in Jones' game is an arduous task. He carries no baggage, presents no character questions and exhibits an appealing combination of raw physical talents.

    Jones, who some pick to be the seventh overall selection in the draft to Arizona, remains his biggest critic. Even after shattering multiple rushing records at Virginia, he dismisses the urge to become complacent, even in the face of the oodles of money and instant celebrity that lie in his near future.

    "I'm hungry," Jones said. "In the NFL if you don't produce, you're not going to be there long. Just because you've made it to the NFL doesn't mean you can stop working and relax. You still have to want it. I want to reach the top."

    His humility will take him there.

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