Jones using his Notre Dame experience as kindling
CINCINNATI -- As Demetrius Jones relaxed in his apartment shortly before Cincinnati's first scrimmage of the spring, he let his mind rewind to a different time and place.
Almost exactly a year earlier, he stood on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, competing in the Blue-Gold game. A record crowd of 51,852 had come to study him and the other three contenders -- Jimmy Clausen, Evan Sharpley and Zach Frazer -- vying for the coveted Fighting Irish starting quarterback spot.
"I was thinking about [how] I was in the spring game, leading the team out the tunnel, had 'ND' carved in my head," Jones said. "Now I'm about to go to a scrimmage for another team, a whole other offense.
"It's almost like living a movie."
Jones' college career has produced enough plot twists to pack a film script, even though his on-field action is limited to one miserable half against Georgia Tech in Notre Dame's 2007 season opener. His story is filled with friction -- from a brief stint as the Fighting Irish starter, to the reasons for his removal, to his abrupt exit from the team, to a shoulder injury that wasn't repaired until he arrived with the Bearcats.
But after a tumultuous journey, Jones hopes the drama is over and that his career can still produce a Hollywood ending in Cincinnati.
"It wasn't a great run for him and he recognized it, but he closed the door on that," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. "He left it behind him and wanted to come and start new."
The new start left Jones in a familiar position: competing for the starting quarterback job. This spring, he worked alongside senior Dustin Grutza, the front-runner to win the position, and redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson, who made a strong push during drills.
Wearing the same No. 3 jersey he donned at Notre Dame, Jones made strides this spring but still looked like a quarterback learning a new offense and coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
Kelly likened Jones to a pitcher on a rehab assignment in Class A.
"He's moved up in terms of our evaluation -- he really stunk and now he's just lousy," Kelly said, smiling. "If we had another spring, another 15 days, I could envision him competing for a starting position. Right now, it's a situation where it's going to take him all summer really to put himself in a position to compete."
It's not the sunniest forecast for a decorated prep recruit who hoped to win the starter's tag early in his college career. But when Jones looks at his future with Cincinnati, he sees clarity, a quality he felt was lacking in South Bend.
"I know what I've got to do if I'll end up being the starting quarterback here," he said. "So does everybody else. It's not like they're asking something different from each person or pulling us to the side, telling us different things. That's really the main difference.
"Time's going to tell, like it always does."
Jones' time at Notre Dame was rife with controversy, from his ascent to the starting quarterback job to his departure from school only 14 days later.
He contends that coach Charlie Weis always intended to make Clausen the starting quarterback, and that he was used to run a spread offense installed only for the Georgia Tech game. Looking back, Jones believes the pieces were in place for Clausen's rise -- from Weis never publicly naming Jones the opening-game starter to Clausen, who underwent elbow surgery late last spring, throwing at full speed for the first time during warm-ups before the Georgia Tech kickoff.
"[Weis] knew in his mind that it was going to be Demetrius, one time, one thing, and after that, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy," Jones said April 22.
Weis responded Friday in the Chicago Tribune, disclosing that Jones had missed a mandatory team meeting six days before the Georgia Tech game. Players had been informed that anyone who didn't attend the meeting wouldn't play in the opener.
But because Jones had been named the starter and the spread offense tailored to his talents was already installed, Weis went to the team's captains and leadership committee to determine Jones' punishment. Weis told the Tribune that Jones' teammates determined he could play against Georgia Tech but would be suspended the following week against Penn State.
"The problem they had was, we practiced with this offense being the entire offense," Weis told the Tribune. "[The players] felt we would have shafted the team if the game we pulled him from was the first game. The better way of doing it was to play him the first game and give [the team] the next week to get ready for the next opponent [without him]."
Jones has never mentioned the suspension. Asked for his response to Weis' comments, Jones told a team spokesman Friday that he'll "let Coach Weis have the last word."
Jones wasn't so quiet about his shoulder injury, another contentious topic.
He got hurt in the 2005 Chicago Public League championship and, as a result, sat out the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. At Notre Dame, doctors diagnosed the injury as bone tendinitis and never said Jones needed surgery, a finding that still leaves Jones miffed.
"I'm not stupid," he said. "The way I look at it, it was already planned for somebody else [Clausen] to play, and if I would have had surgery, it would have kept me out of spring ball and kept me out of summer, so I would have been healed. Those roles were reversed. I was actually playing and somebody else was healing.
"With all of the doctors and the type of treatment that we were getting, I don't see how something like that can go unnoticed when we're taking physicals, taking MRIs and X-rays. When I got over [to Cincinnati], it wasn't like I was throwing a lot. They noticed [the torn labrum] like the second or third day here."
Weis told the Tribune that the medical reports he received on Jones cited only bone tendinitis. Notre Dame declined ESPN.com's interview request for Weis, saying the coach had already addressed Jones' situation.
Jones admits the thought of transferring first crossed his mind during the Georgia Tech game, from which he was removed after fumbling twice. Both Clausen and Evan Sharpley saw action in the 33-3 Irish loss, and Clausen started the next week at Penn State.
After "slow-dragging" in practice, a response to what he felt was a quick hook, Jones didn't board the team bus the day before a Week 3 matchup at Michigan. That same day, Jones' name appeared in the Northern Illinois online student directory.
"In college, competition plays a big part in whether you start or not, but if you're not the best, then you just don't start," said Lexie Spurlock, who coached Jones at Morgan Park High School. "There would have to be a clear, no-question-about-it performance, for someone to move in and move another person out.
"I didn't see that indication anywhere, and I guess he didn't see it anywhere, so he made his decision."
Jones had hoped to enroll at Northern Illinois before the 12th day of class, allowing him to use the 2007 football season as part of his NCAA-mandated transfer year. But an NIU source told ESPN.com that Jones missed the deadline.
"There was nothing we could do," the source said.
Consequently, Jones searched for other schools that used the quarter system and settled on Cincinnati. Kelly had recruited him when he coached Central Michigan and ran a spread offense that suited Jones' skill set.
But before he got a chance to absorb the new system, Jones faced the unsettling prospect of shoulder surgery.
"It was his call, 'Do I get this surgically repaired and take a huge step back?'" Kelly said. "He understands that he needed to do that if he wanted to be a championship quarterback."
His performance the first day of spring practice was anything but championship level, and even drew chuckles from his teammates. But Jones eventually earned a passing grade. He threw for 136 yards in the spring game, including the game-winning, 57-yard touchdown with 1:17 left.
The shoulder isn't 100 percent, but Jones no longer hears it clicking and can focus on improving his throwing mechanics. He worked closely with Anderson throughout the spring, and despite eyeing the same prize, the two quarterbacks meshed.
"I didn't want to be the one who wasn't willing to help him," Anderson said. "We're both learning at the same time. We've grown to be great friends."
Jones received support from a familiar face on April 16, when Florida coach Urban Meyer attended Cincinnati's practice. Meyer, a Cincinnati alum who returned to visit family, had recruited Jones in high school.
"He gave me a few personal pointers," Jones said. "He was basically telling me to keep up my intensity."
That shouldn't be a problem for Jones, who still uses his Notre Dame days as kindling.
His apartment wall displays several pictures of him in an Irish uniform. One shows him firing a pass with textbook mechanics, "to let me know that I did it once, I can do it again." Another shows him carrying the ball during the Georgia Tech game with the accompanying caption, "Rude Awakening."
"It must have torn him up quite a bit, the things that happened," Spurlock said. "I was extremely concerned with the impact that would have, but he's doing fine. There's no down mode at all."
Despite his roundabout career path, Jones thinks it was all part of a plan.
"I'm going from one school to another school, and at the end of the day, everything still worked out perfect," he said. "I'm eligible, still got all my credits, I'm healthy. It just goes to show that everything happens for a reason."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com