It was the first Saturday morning practice of the spring, and Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien was having a little fun with one of his players. He said he had never seen anyone with a stronger arm than Ryan Mallett, whom he coached as a rookie with the New England Patriots last season.
Paul Jones' arm strength was never in doubt, but he had some maturing to do this offseason.
O'Brien told the player he had seen Mallett, the former Michigan and Arkansas quarterback, toss a football 72 yards. The player rose to the challenge and heaved a pass as far as he could. It flew a mere 70 yards.
"We didn't have the best Saturday morning weather that day," Paul Jones recalled.
It didn't take long for O'Brien and Jones to get comfortable with one another. It took even less time for O'Brien to appreciate his redshirt sophomore quarterback's world-class arm. What might take some time is for Jones to master O'Brien's new offense, or even to get comfortable with the nuances of playing at the college level after two seasons of watching from the sidelines.
What's clear is that Jones is enjoying the process and that he's starting to realize what he has to do to stay on the field.
"As long as I get to play a little bit," he said after Saturday's Blue-White Game, "I'm happy."
One-third of Penn State's three-man quarterback race, Jones wowed Penn State fans with his arm strength and mobility during the spring scrimmage despite completing just 6 of 15 passes. He didn't seize the starting job this spring but made some important steps forward, said his head coach.
"Paul Jones has gotten better every single day," O'Brien said. "Paul Jones and I have a unique relationship because we both have unique senses of humor. He's been a fun guy to coach and I'll keep between he and I what he needs to do to win the starting job, but he made a lot of strides this spring, and he's doing better at school, and I've really enjoyed being around Paul Jones."
Jones, of McKees Rocks, said the comfort level he feels now comes from maturation.
"A lot of people forget when I first got here (as an early enrollee in January 2010), I was 17 years old," said Jones, who will turn 20 next month. "I was from a small town coming here at 17 years old; of course you hear about all these parties and everything."
Jones didn't make his classwork as much of a priority. He redshirted the 2010 season then was ruled academically ineligible for the 2011 season. He spent a lot of time down on himself -- he told reporters he walked home in tears after several games last season -- and decided he had to make a concerted effort to strengthen his study habits, mainly because "you can't play anybody that's ineligible."
"I definitely worked harder," he said. "There were a couple times I didn't even look at my (class) syllabi before, and now they're hanging, literally, right above my bed. So I can't go to sleep without looking at them, making sure I have my work done, and I'm in the academic center every day."
Jones has also had to study O'Brien's new offensive playbook, which puts much of the decision-making on the quarterback. He has made strides there as well.
"He's very functional," Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher said. "He runs the offense, he's smart, he competes. It's just a matter of we gotta protect the ball. We can't give it away."
Fisher was referring to Jones' turnover, a poorly thrown jump ball picked off by defensive back Devin Pryor in Saturday's second quarter. It was one of the few instances Saturday -- or any day -- when Jones underthrew his intended receiver.
"When he misses it's long or maybe too high," said wide receiver Shawney Kersey, who caught a pair of passes from Jones, including a 42-yard gain, on Saturday.
Jones overshot a couple of open receivers on deep passes in the scrimmage. He chalked it up later to excitement and nerves; it was the first extensive action he'd seen since the 2010 Blue-White Game, when he threw two touchdown passes to Kersey. It was evident he enjoyed himself Saturday, no more than when he playfully swatted O'Brien on the rear end after completing a pass, which drew a smile from the coach.
Being O'Brien's pal, though, is not his primary goal.
"When it comes down to fall Saturdays, it's not about making people laugh," Jones said. "It's about winning games."