It's the first thing anyone notices when they see UMBC sophomore goalkeeper Quantrell Jones: the kid is big.
Standing at 6-foot-3 and tipping the scales at 230 pounds, Jones looks like a football player. He has the size, quickness and maturity to be calling the shots on a defense as a middle linebacker. And he's only a sophomore, so it isn't outside the realm of possibility that he'll grow a little bit more by the time he's done playing at UMBC.
It's rare to find that size at a young age in Division I football, but it's even harder to find someone like that as a goalkeeper in soccer, which is exactly what Jones plays.
"He's the athlete that we're trying to get to play in America," UMBC men's soccer coach Pete Caringi said. "He has the size of a football player, the agility of a basketball player ... and he's played at such a high level. Hopefully in the wave of the future, we continue to get players at his ability."
Jones is used to having the spotlight focused squarely on him; there has been an abundance of buzz surrounding him going back to his days at Kenwood High School in Essex, Md. Before he even put on a Retrievers jersey and began his college career, he was one of the hottest young talents in the sport, as he played with the Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club, the USA Youth National Team and USA Soccer's U17 Men's National Team.
And if anyone needed further confirmation that Jones is a unique talent, the numbers he put up for UMBC as a freshman last fall were eye-popping. The local kid made 36 saves and recorded five shutouts in 12 starts, including eight saves in a 1-0 win against Binghamton last October. Although the Retrievers lost in the American East championship game, he allowed only one goal in the first two rounds of the tournament.
But according to Jones, we still haven't seen the best of him yet.
"I don't think I've had my best game yet," Jones said. "That's judgmental on me, but I think I can do better than what I did last year."
Despite getting constantly asked about playing football, Jones said the sport was never really an option. His mother wanted him to try it when he was about 5 years old, but concerns about the long-term effects of head injuries left Jones searching for another sport.
That's when soccer came into Jones' life, and with it, so did a place where he could find peace.
"It's like my happy place," Jones said. "It's somewhere I can go and I can relax and I can have fun. It's that one place where every little thing goes away for me. I'm on the field and I'm enjoying what I do. It's a lifestyle for me at this point. It's something I work hard at and I put the time in to do and enjoy every little thing about it."
It's one thing for the sport to be a player's comfort zone; it's another thing for the athlete to be good at it as well. Jones proved to be a natural at an early age, and it was apparent to many of his teammates, including sophomore defender Jordan Ehart. Ehart has been a constant in Jones' career going back to their days playing youth soccer with the Baltimore Bays when they were 8 years old.
"You could see that it wasn't just his size," Ehart said. "His ability and skills are there, too. That's something that really impressed me from the start, and as the years have gone on, it's really impressed me how he's continued to progress and not really lose anything."
When it came time for Jones to sign with a school, UMBC saw the talent he brought to the field. And just like his comfort level playing soccer, he found something similar with the Retrievers.
"It's home," Jones said. "When you come to [Retriever Soccer Park], it's just something different about the way everything feels. It's the fans, the style of play and where they play, especially at night. It's beautiful, and it's a one-of-a-kind feeling. I don't think that many other colleges have that."
Being a local product makes Jones proud to be where he is.
"There's not a day that goes by where I [don't] think that I'm blessed," Jones said.
The coaches and players knew what kind of intangibles Jones brought to the team. They knew he had good instincts and had the skills to be a great goalkeeper. But Ehart doesn't think people knew exactly how good Jones could be.
Jones took over as the starting goalkeeper last October, and the Retrievers went 5-0-1 in their next six matches. The Retrievers outscored teams, 10-3, during that span, with Jones grabbing 20 saves.
For Ehart, seeing Jones deliver that level of consistency was normal.
"He's always worked hard," Ehart said. "He's always had the skillset, but there are some players you see that have the skills and they just use that. They don't work as hard. But Quantrell is always trying to get to the next level. I wasn't surprised at all."
It was also during that stretch that Jones had his eight saves against Binghamton. That level of performance was a prime example of why Caringi and the Retrievers wanted him on their squad.
"That was the Quantrell we recruited," Caringi said. "For me, the expectations are high for Quantrell, and I think the expectations are high for himself. So to watch him play in a game like that, it wasn't something that I was amazed by. I'm kind of used to it because I've watched him train and practice."
As good as Jones is, he's always looking for ways to take a step from good to great. It's a quality Ehart and Caringi praise as one of his best. For Jones right now, that involves improving his ball distribution. He wants to get the ball to his teammates quicker and with more accuracy. As Jones says, that is a big part of being successful at his position.
"It's about angles and judgment and ‘what ifs,'" he said. "Everything is a ‘what if.' That also applies to distribution as to how accurate you can be and how consistent you can be. All of that applies to my position. It's about safety and accuracy as well as ball speed and tempo."
For what it's worth, Caringi thinks Jones' ball distribution is good, but he does like that Jones is always trying to improve himself. It would seem that Jones is on a path to an MLS career, but that's where Caringi draws the line ... for now, at least.
"I think I'd have a better indication of that after this year," Caringi said. "I think the MLS is down the road. I think, for him, it's a matter of just really concentrating on his grades ... and continue to train. When he's ready for that, I'll let him know. I still think he can learn more in college, and in due time, [MLS] will be there."
Jones describes himself as a quiet guy on the field. He knows he's a good player, but he allows his actions, rather than his words, to do the talking for him. His goals for this season are the same as always: work on his fitness and nutrition and get better.
"If I can do those things, then that impacts not only my play as a person but also the play of the team as well," Jones said. "If I get those down, I'm doing what I have to do on my end. I'm holding up my end of the bargain."
Photo Credit: Gail Burton/UMBC Athletics
Issue 257: September 2019
Originally published Sept. 16, 2019