By The Washington Post · Scott Allen · SPORTS, FOOTBALL
DC Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones had just moved his team across midfield with a couple effortless flicks of his wrist, the types of throws that helped make him a legend at Ohio State, where the Cleveland native went from third on the depth chart to starting - and winning - the national championship game at the end of the 2014 season.
"Yeah, I heard them a little bit," the 27-year-old Jones said with a wry smile. "I wouldn't say they were for me."
It's been a while since Jones was the center of attention on the football field, and it will apparently take some getting used to. But how Jones fares as the Defenders' most recognizable player could help shape the XFL's popularity in its first season.
"He is a well-known name, and he's someone that has had a lot of success at the highest levels," Defenders Coach Pep Hamilton said this week. "To have a player that's as accomplished as a Cardale Jones in our league is only beneficial to the quality of football that we have, and indicative of the quality of football that we have."
Jones' college career may never be replicated. He made his first start as a redshirt sophomore in the 2014 Big Ten championship game in place of Heisman Trophy candidate J.T. Barrett, who fractured his ankle in the Buckeyes' previous game, and fueled a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin that earned Ohio State a spot in the College Football Playoff. Jones was similarly brilliant in his next two starts against Alabama and Oregon to claim the national title. He lost the starting job midway through the following season and declared for the NFL draft, leaving Ohio State with an 11-0 record as a starter.
A fourth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2016, Jones appeared in one regular season game during his rookie year, was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017 and was among the team's final cuts last summer. When Jones was assigned to the Defenders in October, one month after being released by the Seattle Seahawks, he called it an opportunity to "go somewhere and be 'the guy.' " The role suited Jones just fine Saturday.
"Other than playing in mop-up duties in preseason games, it's definitely a good feeling to be in a position where my play can ultimately determine the outcome of the game," said Jones, who threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the Defenders' 31-19 win over the Seattle Dragons. "It's a position I always wanted to be in."
Two days before the season opener, ESPN, one of the XFL's broadcast partners, published a feature on Dallas Renegades quarterback Landry Jones. The accompanying headline declared the former Oklahoma star, who became the first player to commit to the league last August, "the face of the XFL."
"That's good," Cardale Jones said when asked about the label, with no hint of bitterness. "None of those individual accolades matter to me personally, or this team, because we know what we're chasing, and it's bigger than one individual person. It's a long season, and we've got a long way to go."
Landry Jones sat out the Renegades' season-opening loss to the St. Louis BattleHawks with a knee injury. And Defenders defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle, who played with Cardale Jones at Ohio State, was less reserved than his teammate when asked about that title.
"I'm definitely biased, but Cardale is for sure the face of the XFL," Sprinkle said. "He's extremely talented, did a lot of great things in his career. He's just continuing to get better. He's still young, he's still an exciting player to watch."
Jones later joked, "I paid Tracy to say that. Anyone who says it's me, I paid them to say that."
Those who know Jones from his time at Ohio State, where he seemed destined to be remembered for his tweet about not coming to Columbus to "play school," aren't surprised by his tendency to stiff-arm praise.
"That's always the way that he's been," said Lettermen Row senior writer Austin Ward, who covered Jones for ESPN during his roller-coaster career at Ohio State. "When you look at the way his whole journey played out . . . he has always believed in his own ability, but he's never had any moment where anyone looked at him after high school as 'the guy.' He's constantly had to fight for that recognition and fight for a spot. He always knew the next challenge was going to be bigger."
Cardale Jones is already the unquestioned face of the XFL in Ohio, with Cleveland and Columbus ranking second and third behind Seattle in TV ratings for last Saturday's opener on ABC. (Washington ranked fifth.) Jones, Sprinkle and cornerback Doran Grant give the Defenders three former Buckeyes, and there are no XFL franchises in Ohio.
"I'm shocked that [Cleveland and Columbus] weren't one and two," cracked Jones, who received his degree from Ohio State in 2017.
After last Saturday's game, Jones said he heard from a number of his former college and pro teammates, including Tyvis Powell, Raekwon McMillan, Barrett and Super Bowl champion Frank Clark. Singer-songwriter John Legend, a die-hard Ohio State fan, tuned in for Jones' XFL debut, too.
"I ain't mad at this XFL action," Legend tweeted to his 13.3 million followers. "I'll be rooting for champion Buckeye QB @CJ1two."
The XFL could prove to be a good fit for the 6-foot-5, 264-pound Jones, who has the opportunity to get game experience that he wouldn't on an NFL practice squad and perhaps earn another opportunity in that league. He also has a built-in following; his 1.6 million Twitter followers, for example, are nearly 10 times the number of Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who also played at Ohio State.
"Cardale wanted a place to show what he could do," said Ward, the Lettermen Row writer. "The XFL needs players who can do things other people can't. Nothing against Landry Jones, but Cardale is the kind of person that can elevate your league. He has such a remarkable story, and the personality and athleticism to match it. If the XFL is going to be a success, you need people like that who fans are invested in, and I think that's true not just in Columbus or Cleveland."
Jones will look to improve to 13-0 as a starter since high school when the Defenders host the New York Guardians on Saturday.
"At the end of the day, you gotta go out there and win games," Jones said. "If you're [the] quote, unquote 'face of the league' or not, you gotta go out there and still do your job."