Zay Jones isn’t a magician, but the Buffalo Bills rookie wide receiver has left the internet befuddled over the optical illusion he performed during Sunday’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The 6ft2 East Carolina product couldn’t make a reception while diving for quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s attempted touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Instead Jones, who was sliding out of bounds on his chest, managed to halt his momentum, reverse his kinetic energy, and rise to his feet in a way that seemed to defy gravity.
Zay Jones (No. 11) fails to haul in the Tyrod Taylor pass on Sunday, but he did appear to levitate to his feet after diving for what would have been a touchdown reception
So how did he do it?
‘The first thing that occurred to me: his core strength,’ said East Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors, who trained both Jones and his father, Robert, a former NFL linebacker at the University.
‘Zay is very athletic, but at the same time, you have to have pretty good core strength to do something like that,’ Connors added. ‘I think he always had fast-twitch qualities as an athlete. A lot of that is hereditary anyway. He had some good genetic tools to bring with him but he wasn’t very big as far as his body weight was concerned.’
According to his strength and conditioning coach at East Carolina, Zay Jones ‘always did exceptionally well with anything related to core strength or postural integrity’
As Connors remembers, Jones arrived at ECU in 2013 as a skinny kid, but exhibited an uncommon work ethic in the gym and practice. In fact, Connors explained, both he and the football coaches occasionally had to restrict Jones to prevent him from overexertion.
Connors cannot remember Jones doing anything at East Carolina like he did on the Kansas City sideline on Sunday, but such a feat was not a complete surprise to the veteran strength coach.
‘He always did exceptionally well with anything related to core strength or postural integrity,’ Connors said of Jones, who thrived in the Pirates’ strength and conditioning program.
Specifically, Connors likes to use core-strengthening drills that involve weights because the degree of difficulty can always be increased.
‘What you may want to call a “renegade row,” “a get-up sit-up,” a “Turkish get-up” – those are my favorite things in relationship to developing core strength,’ said Connors. ‘With a Turkish get-up, I’ve seen guys who can do it with a 40-kilogram kettle bell. You won’t see many guys who can do it.’
According to Connors, Jones couldn’t quite do a 40-kilogram Turkish get-up – wherein an athlete rises to his or her feet while holding a kettle bell straight up with one arm – but he always shined in the weight room nonetheless.
‘[Jones] would try to put as much weight on the bar as humanly possible,’ Connors said. ‘He’s going to give you every ounce of effort that he has.’
At the NFL Draft Combine, Jones’s broad jump was recorded at 133 inches, which ranked third among receivers and tied for sixth overall
Of course, the NFL is full of exceptional athletes, so it stands to reason that other players should be able to replicate Jones’s levitation.
Former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson gave his best shot on the NFL Network’s morning show, ‘Good Morning Football.’
Burleson, the 36-year old who played 11 NFL seasons before retiring in 2014, came pretty close to mimicking Jones.
While laying flat on his chest, Burleson got his momentum going with his hands before leaning back onto his feet in a somewhat more wobbly version of Jones’s stunt.
Jones, who has been called ‘Darth Zayder’ for his ability to levitate like the Star Wars villain, was impressed.
‘The force is with you @Nate13Burleson!!,’ Jones wrote on Twitter.
Obviously Jones’s athletic prowess dwarfs that of an average football fan, but at the 2017 NFL Draft Combine his speed was described as ‘average’ by NFL.com.
Jones’s 4.45-second 40-yard dash time ranked 30th among NFL hopefuls and 11th among wide receivers while his 36.5-inch vertical left him tied for 34th overall.
But a deeper look at Jones’s performance reveals some remarkable athletic traits.
His broad jump – which requires explosive hip power according to Connors– was recorded at 133 inches, which ranked third among receivers and tied for sixth overall. (Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu had the top distance of 141 inches and was ultimately drafted by Oakland in the second round).
Jones also impressed with his 20- and 60-yard shuttle times, which measure a player’s quickness and ability to change direction. His 20-yard shuttle ranked fifth overall with a time of 4.01 seconds, and he was equally good at the 60-yard shuttle where he timed in at 11.17 – sixth overall
Zay Jones’s father Robert won three Super Bowls as a member of the Dallas Cowboys
Zay Jones’s uncle Jeff Blake also attended East Carolina before playing 14 NFL seasons
It helps that Jones comes from a football family.
Father Robert won three Super Bowls as a linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s and uncle Jeff Blake had a 14-year NFL career and remains one of the more beloved quarterbacks in Cincinnati Bengals history.
‘His dad was also genetically gifted,’ Connors said. ‘He was a big, strong man.’
His brother Cayleb was actually more heavily recruited than Jones and played receiver at Texas and Arizona.
Jones followed his father and uncle to East Carolina, where he set an NCAA record for most receptions in a career (399) and a single-season mark with 158 receptions in 2016. Naturally Jones was named a first-team All-American in 2016.
The Dallas native has had a respectable rookie season after being drafted by the Bills in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft, recording 24 catches for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including one in Sunday’s win over the Chiefs.
‘All of us at East Carolina are amazed, not just at what he accomplished here, but what he continues to do,’ said Connors.