Special teams could be Bengals rookie Jones’ path to field

CINCINNATI — Charlie Jones bounced around to three different college programs before the last stop at Purdue finally gave him his opportunity to show what he could do as a wide receiver.

The Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the fourth round as someone that potentially could fill their fourth receiver role and maybe eventually earn a starting job in the future, but his experience as a returner on special teams gives him an immediate opportunity to make an impact.

Jones, the Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year in 2021 at Iowa, said he got his start in college on special teams and has no problem earning his time on the field in that way first.

“Obviously I’m gonna come in here and do whatever they need me to do to help his team win, and special teams is something I love doing, kind of how I got my foot in the door to being a receiver, so I understand the importance of it and I love being back there on returns,” Jones said Friday after rookie minicamp. “And if they need me anywhere else, you know, definitely willing to do that.”

Jones had begun his college career at Buffalo in 2017 but redshirted his freshman year and ended up transferring to Iowa in 2019. He sat out that season as a walk-on transfer, but eventually earned a scholarship. The problem was he was in an offense that relied heavily on the run, so he was mostly limited to showcasing his speed as a return specialist.

The summer before his final year of eligibility he transferred to Purdue, reuniting with quarterback Aiden O’Connell, who played on a youth football team with Jones in third grade, and it didn’t take long to prove he belonged. In the Boilermaker’s season opener against Penn State he had 12 catches for 153 yards. He next week he had nine grabs for 133 yards and the next, 11 catches for 188 yards. In just three games, he had surpassed his yardage total from the previous season, and he ended up leading the nation in receptions (110), while ranking second in receiving yards (1,361 yards, school record) and fifth in receiving touchdowns (12).

“I think it was just a long time coming,” Jones said. “I always knew that regardless of the situation I had to come out and work every day. I know if I just kept working, once I got that opportunity at Purdue, things would come full-circle.”

“... I had a lot of help,” he added. “Obviously, had a really good quarterback, grew up with him, so that was an easy decision for me. And then it being that kind of system was something I’ve been waiting on. I was in a triple option in high school and then places that I was before, you know (the offense) wasn’t throwing the ball a ton. So being able to be in an offense like that was cool, something I had been waiting on.”

Jones said his experience going to different programs helped him learn to adjust to new environments, different schemes and different coaching. Walking on at Iowa State especially allowed him to “grow in a lot of ways” and helped prepare him for having to work his way up in the NFL as well. He had to put in the work to earn a scholarship there and it paid off in the end.

“I started from the bottom,” he said. “Special teams is really where I got my foot in the door, so I understood what my role was. If it was just on punt return, I’m gonna be the best at what I do. Then (the same) as a receiver, just build that confidence and getting the work on my own so I knew someday, somewhere my opportunity was gonna come.”

Since his opportunity in the NFL came with the Bengals drafting him on April 29, he’s been continuing his workouts at Purdue with O’Connell throwing to him so he could stay sharp and perhaps pick up a few new things to add to his toolbox.

Jones has followed the Bengals receivers, just as a fan of the game, and looks forward to learning from some of the best in the league like Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd. He’s actually older in age than Higgins and Chase, despite them entering their fourth and third seasons, respectively, but he said he plans to “be a sponge” and soak up whatever information he can from them.

That all starts Monday when the rookies mix in with the veterans for the first time in the Bengals’ offseason workout program.

“This this receiver room I’ve been following just as a fan, and you know, it’s awesome to be here and be in this group,” Jones said. “Like I said, just a perfect opportunity to learn a lot from a lot of people that have really established themselves. … I’m looking forward to Monday to build those relationships.”

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