Larry McNulty had coached enough successful football to know a quarterback when he saw one. So when the tall, strapping young man transferred into Charlotte Latin High School, where McNulty was running the team in 2012, the coach immediately had him pegged as his starter.
“He was a good-looking kid,” McNulty said of the junior who had shown up at his doorstep from the Midwest. “Six-foot-four, 200 pounds. Just looked the part.”
Compared with the backup — the only other quarterback he had on the roster, a 5-11, 148-pound sophomore who’d never played varsity football — they looked like the before and after photos for a supplement ad or a workout program.
McNulty went with the central casting quarterback as the opening day starter that season, but in the first game, things didn’t go too well. Latin was losing. At halftime, McNulty decided to make a change. He put the stringbean sophomore in to see what would happen.
Daniel Jones threw a touchdown pass and led them to a comeback win.
“I noticed the team had a little bit of a spark to it,” McNulty recalled in a telephone interview with Newsday.
That Monday, McNulty said he would be starting Jones in the next game but assured the junior he would be getting playing time as well. By Wednesday, the guy who had started the season as the No. 1 quarterback was gone. His father pulled him from the school and they moved back to whence they came. Jones’ play essentially chased him halfway across the country.
McNulty doesn’t even remember the name of that kid or the state he was from.
“Michigan or something, I think.”
Jones? McNulty will never forget him.
“He started every game that year and every game thereafter,” he said. “He is, if not the, at least one of the most respected students to ever come through our school. I don’t know anybody who would say anything about him that is not positive.”
‘SLOW YOUR ROLL’
Jones has been overlooked all of his athletic life. First there was McNulty, who decided to go with the prototype over the spindly option in the first game. Even after he named Jones the starter, he didn’t catch on to what he had in him.
During that sophomore season, McNulty was chatting with his assistant, Kim Cousar, who had spent many years coaching in public schools in the Charlotte area before joining the staff at Latin.
“You know what, Coach, this Daniel Jones kid is special,” Cousar told McNulty.
“Yeah,” McNulty replied. “I like him a lot. He’s pretty good. I like his attitude. I like his toughness.”
“No, you’re not hearing what I’m saying,” Cousar said. “I’ve seen a lot of really good quarterbacks. This kid is special. If he ever gets bigger, he’s liable to play somewhere big and he might even make it to the NFL.”
McNulty thought he was crazy.
“We’re going, ‘Are you kidding me? He looks like a beanpole, he’s so skinny. I don’t know if he’s ever gonna do that,’ ” McNulty said. “Well, all of a sudden the physical attributes caught up with all the other stuff.”
Even after he grew to 6-4 and led Latin to back-to-back state championship games (they lost both, including an overtime thriller his senior year), Jones was mostly ignored by college recruiters. He committed to Princeton but knew he could play at a higher level, so he walked on at Duke. He became a three-year starter there under David Cutcliffe, who was Eli Manning’s head coach at Ole Miss and Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
That coach, another who once overlooked Jones, eventually became a believer.
“He throws the ball well enough to play with anybody,” Cutcliffe said. “I would think he’s going to play 14, 16 years, and he’ll be a championship quarterback. He’ll win a championship.”
At the time of the draft, many thought otherwise. They were unimpressed by Jones’ arm strength, accuracy and college record. The world scoffed at the Giants when they used the sixth overall pick to add him to their roster in April.
Of course, the team already had Eli Manning, so it would take some time before Jones would get on the field and actually play in an NFL game, never mind start one.
“Slow your roll,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said Aug. 8 after Jones’ first brief preseason performance was impressive enough to elicit speculation that he might compete with Manning for the starting job.
Forty days later, Jones won it.
Makes you wonder whose roll Shurmur was trying to slow. His own? Management’s? The fans and media?
Jones is used to seeing such yield signs, but he’s never been much of a wait-your-turn kind of guy. He doesn’t force his way to the front of the line, but he seems to always end up there.
And now here we are, in Week 3 of the 2019 season, and Jones is the starting quarterback for the Giants against the Bucs.
“I haven’t [started] a regular-season game, and I’m certainly aware of that,” he said. “All I can do is prepare as hard as I possibly can, and that’s what I’ll do. I think I’ve gotten some sense of that in the preseason and certainly it will be elevated during the regular season. All I can do this week is make sure I’m prepared, the team is prepared, and I do all I possibly can.”
Jones was a basketball player when he arrived at Charlotte Latin, and a pretty darn good one, too. Once McNulty named him the varsity starter in 2012, though, he caught the quarterback bug. He told his father, Stephen, that it’s what he wanted to do. Suddenly all of the extra time spent shooting hoops and playing AAU ball was focused on football.
It’s paid off.
“You train your whole life and work your whole life to be playing in the NFL, and it’s actually going to happen for him this week,” Giants running back Saquon Barkley said. “I don’t think it will [hit him] until he actually gets out on the field . . . like, ‘Wow, I am in the NFL.’ When he gets that first play and they say ‘hut,’ boom, it all goes away, just like every play. Just like how it was in college, just like how it was in high school.
“When you have that first time and you’re out there after that first play, it all goes away and you just get locked in.”
THE GUY FOR A REASON
McNulty won’t be at the game Sunday. He’ll be watching with one of his former assistant coaches, Brian Anderson, in the Charlotte area.
McNulty has had five of his players move on to the NFL, either as a coach or player, including former Giants Super Bowl winner Chris Canty, so he’s used to watching his guys on Sundays. Watching a quarterback will be different, though.
“I didn’t worry about people crushing him on the pass rush like the whole damn Tampa Bay team coming after this poor rookie in his first start,” McNulty said, comparing Canty, a defensive lineman, to Jones. “They’re licking their chops and they’ll be blitzing from every position that they can. Oh, baby.”
The Giants think he’s ready for it.
“He’s a unique guy,” Giants offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “His demeanor doesn’t change much. He’s been really good, he’s on top of things. You can kind of see with young guys sometimes where there’s a little bit of hesitation with their answer or maybe sometimes out on the field, but so far, he’s been really good throughout and very consistent throughout all of our practices.”
His teammates seem to have a confidence in him that belies his lack of experience.
“We’re rallying around him,” center Jon Halapio said. “We need to pick him up and have his back, just like how he has our back. He understands that he has a job and we have a job, too. We’re going to go in there with clear communication, and we’re going to have Jones’ back.”
“He’s going to come in and let it rip,” tight end Evan Engram said. “Coach [Shurmur] is going to do a good job of putting together a good game plan and putting him in spots to be successful. He just has to come out and play, play football and try to go win a ballgame.”
Barkley’s advice to Jones on his first start?
“Be you,” the running back said. “You don’t have to be anybody besides yourself. You’re here for a reason. You’re the guy for a reason.”
Likely the same reason he got his first start at Charlotte Latin.
“He was always respected greatly by his coaches and his teammates, even way back when I remember him as a ninth-grader,” McNulty said. “It’s not that ‘Baker Mayfield rah-rah, jump up and down and scream and go crazy’ kind of leadership. It’s ‘I’m focused, I love what I’m doing, and I’m out here working with you guys.’ Everybody respects him because of his physical toughness and the way he works.”
He remembered a JV game against Charlotte Catholic, a powerhouse program that dressed about 100 players for each game. Latin had about 25, including the unimpressive-looking Jones (“He was about 135 pounds that year!” McNulty said). Jones held up.
“Damned if he didn’t take them down the field and they scored,” McNulty said. “He got knocked on his butt and dusted himself off and got back up.”
Jones is likely to get knocked down some in his first start Sunday. His career won’t be flawless. There will be valleys and, the Giants hope, peaks. There will be moments of learning and moments when hard lessons evolve into victories.
But whatever happens to Jones from here on out, he’s likely to follow the sage advice of Barkley (all of four months older and 18 games more experienced in the NFL). He’ll be himself.
“All those traits that you see from him, the physical toughness, the mental toughness, the respect that his teammates at Latin had and his teammates at Duke had,” McNulty said, “that’s been a trademark of his all the way along the way.”
Jones will be Jones. It’s who has brought him this far.
Daniel Jones will be the 14th quarterback since the 1970 merger to make his first NFL start in a Giants uniform. The combined record of their debuts is 7-6. Here is a look at how those players performed:
Date Player ATT CMP YDS TD INT OPP RES
09/18/1977 Jerry Golsteyn 14 7 123 1 1 WAS W
10/09/1977 Joe Pisarcik 38 12 193 1 4 PHI L
12/10/1978 Randy Dean 14 8 24 1 1 STL W
10/07/1979 Phil Simms 12 6 37 0 0 TB W
12/07/1980 Scott Brunner 18 8 161 2 1 at SEA W
10/05/1987 Jim Crocicchia* 15 6 89 1 0 SF L
10/11/1987 Mike Busch* 41 14 183 1 1 WAS L
11/27/1988 Jeff Hostetler 10 5 128 1 0 at NO W
11/26/1992 Kent Graham 28 12 151 0 0 at DAL L
09/04/1994 Dave Brown 20 10 171 1 1 PHI W
10/12/1997 Danny Kanell 28 13 198 1 1 at ARI W
12/14/2003 Jesse Palmer 26 15 140 1 0 at NO L
11/21/2004 Eli Manning 37 17 162 1 2 ATL L
*Crocicchia and Busch were strike replacement quarterbacks
AND AT QB . . .
Six teams will be starting quarterbacks today who did not start last week:
Player Team G/GS Replaces
Daniel Jones Giants 1/0 Eli Manning
Luke Falk Jets 1/0 Trevor Siemian
Mason Rudolph Steelers 1/0 Ben Roethlisberger
Teddy Bridgewater Saints 36/29 Drew Brees
Kyle Allen Panthers 2/1 Cam Newton
Josh Allen Dolphins 14/13 Ryan Fitzpatrick
NOTE: G/GS – NFL career games played/games started.