The quarterback is a sophomore with a sore back. He spent most of last week practicing on the rubbing table. The only pads he wore were heated. The fullback had last carried a ball in 1967, as a freshman at Utah. He sat out last season as a transfer student. And the tailback they brought in to replace O.J. Simpson is slower and smaller and, until last Saturday against Nebraska, hadn't played a smidgin of major college football. Right off you know that USC is in trouble. You don't even have to mention that the No. 2 quarterback has a shoulder separation and the guy behind him has a throbbing elbow and a partially numbed throwing hand.
USC's biggest concern is the sophomore quarterback with the aching back—Jimmy Jones (see cover). Jones, one of the very few black quarterbacks in the history of college football, is the gifted youngster the Trojans are hoping will lead them into their fourth straight Rose Bowl. Two years ago he was one of the most sought-after schoolboy quarterbacks in the country. His junior year he ran and passed for 2,300 yards and 20 touchdowns. That was nothing. His senior year it was 2,400 yards and 40 touchdowns. Offers flooded in, 112 of them. Everybody wanted the good-looking kid with the .30-30 arm and speed—and the intelligence that goes with a three-point-plus academic average.
But Jones didn't want them. Not even from the beginning. He told 107 of them "no thank you," visited Ohio State, Penn State, Kansas, Michigan State and USC, and then, quickly, told McKay that he was his. At the same time, Shortstop Jones told a flock of baseball scouts that he didn't believe pro baseball was his lot in life. At least not at the moment.
"Actually, I made up my mind that I wanted to go to USC about halfway through my senior year," said Jones. He smiled, fleetingly—he doesn't often—and added, "I always wanted to go to the Rose Bowl."
And so he came and, like all Trojan freshmen, he sank from public sight. There is no freshman coach. For each game, and there are only three, McKay picks two of his aids to be coaches. Otherwise, the freshmen spend all their time working opponents' plays against the varsity. Jones' freshmen game credentials were good but not startling: 28 of 59 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns, 27 carries for 120 yards.
"If he went into a game with more than two or three pass patterns he was damn lucky," said McKay. "The freshmen here just don't work together as a unit. That's not their job. Their job is to help the varsity get ready each week."
Then in the spring game Jones surfaced and exciting things began to happen. Playing just a little over 30 minutes, he completed 19 passes for 392 yards and five touchdowns. Like that, the gloom of losing Simpson began to lift. "Oh, no," said USC's rivals. "First O.J., now J.J. Why doesn't McKay take all his Js and...?"
But now it is three days before the opener at Nebraska, and the latest Super J lies pinned to the rubbing table by two pillow-sized heating pads. He has a muscle spasm in the lower back, sore and stiff. He can't even bend over. He's disgusted. And scared. But he's no stranger to pain. As a sophomore in high school, before growing to 6'1" and 190 pounds, he was playing safety when a rival bowled him over, breaking five vertebrae in his neck. He was in traction a week, a body cast three months and a neck brace another six weeks. Five minutes after they took off the neck brace, he went into training for the next football season. Even the school doctor at Harrisburg, Pa. said no, Jones couldn't play anymore. Too risky. His coach, George Chaump, now a Woody Hayes aide at Ohio State, argued, finally taking Jones to an orthopedic surgeon who said the neck was stronger than ever from the exercise. The school doctor still said no and what does an orthopedic surgeon know about it anyway? Chaump gathered positive evidence from several more doctors, then presented it at a hastily called school board meeting the night before the opening game. Jones played. All last week people keep wandering into the USC room, asking about the back, and finally Jones closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep. He doesn't say much anyway: very quiet, almost shy. Ask 20 people at USC for an anecdote about him and they'll think and think and come up empty. "He has a fine sense of humor," says Dave Levy, McKay's No. 1 aide. "But he is the most unhumorous person I've ever met. He's just a nice, quiet, serious kid."
"I think," said Craig Fertig, who went from USC passing star to USC backfield coach five years ago, "that he is waiting until he does something before he talks. He knows he's never played a minute for us, so he's quiet."
Upstairs, McKay, who should be worrying, isn't. At least there's no evidence. "I learned a long time ago that my climbing the walls won't make the pain go away in his back." He neatly slices open an envelope, then laughs. "Look at this, a card to the Playboy Club. Now what am I going to do with that?"