LOS ANGELES -- Maurice Jones-Drew is seated on the outdoor steps of a popular hangout at UCLA, where he's taking classes for the first time since leaving school after his junior season in 2005. As the courtyard bustles with students, the Jacksonville Jaguars' standout running back rolls his eyes and shakes his head. Never has he felt this completely at home and totally out of place at the same time.
"So much has changed," he says. "When I first came back everyone was taking notes on laptops and iPads. They're like, 'I can type faster than I can write.' What? I was the only one in my class to pull out a pencil and notebook. I mean, I'm about to turn 28, but I felt like a dinosaur. I was so behind the times, and everybody was so young. They just looked young."
Jones-Drew breaks into an easy chuckle. He knows he doesn't have to be here, but he made a promise to his grandmother when he left school that he would return to get his degree in history. He put it off his first few years because he was younger and enjoying the spoils of being a blossoming star, then came kids and marriage and Pro Bowls and offseason workouts.
He knew, however, that his offseason schedule this year would revolve around his rehab schedule after having December surgery to repair a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot, so he figured he could knock out several classes while receiving daily treatment from the Bruins medical staff. Shortly after the Jaguars concluded a 2-14 season, with Jones-Drew missing the final 10-plus games, the California native packed a duffle bag with clothes and a few personal items and headed west to his new digs in a freshman dorm. You read that correctly: a freshman dorm.
Less than six months earlier while attending a "life retreat" seminar in Washington, Jones-Drew listened as NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith discussed the need for players to see themselves as businessmen and not just football players. Among the things he mentioned was that 70 percent of the available monies in a league-sponsored back-to-school program was going unused.
The frugal Jones-Drew made a mental note. When he informed the Jaguars he was going back to school, ownership offered to pick up any costs not covered by the league.
Jones-Drew's dorm room is as spartan as his resume is distinguished. The three-time All-Pro and 2011 rushing champion has a desk, a dresser, an armoire and a 46-inch Plasma that provides NFL updates in the morning and Madden opportunities in the evening. Although nothing about it screams "home away from home," Jones-Drew couldn't be more comfortable.
He has a disarming, easy-going personality that puts everyone at ease. His suite mates would never know he has made nearly $30 million over the last four years if they didn't Google it. He knows all their names and even hangs out with them on occasion, like last week when one of them joined him for pizza, salad and pasta in the cafeteria.
During his first couple of months on campus he got around on a motorized scooter because he couldn't put pressure on his foot. Later, he used crutches before finally relying on a walking boot. As he moves across campus he senses when people are staring at him, but no one says anything. He knows his senses are correct, because when he checks his Twitter he sees people mentioning passing him on campus. When he tweets back and asks why they didn't say hello, the responses are vague at best.
Again, he chuckles. Jones-Drew is nothing if not approachable, even with his own team. Despite an ugly holdout that ended with him receiving significant fines for missing mandatory minicamps and training camp, he says he is on good terms with the organization, although he made a point of keeping his distance while at UCLA.
He felt the need to "emotionally detach" from his day job so he could focus on his classes and rehab. The Jaguars changed general managers and coaches after the season, and Jones-Drew says he has talked just twice with new coach Gus Bradley, who informed him that the team plans to "run the rock."
That's fine with Jones-Drew, who has set his sights on 2,000 yards this season. Never mind that he only recently started putting weight on his surgically-repaired foot. His tentative schedule is to begin wearing a regular shoe this weekend, start running in May, and be full-go in June.
When he speaks about trying to become just the eighth player in league history to reach 2,000 yards rushing, his words are coated in matter-of-factness not bravado. He truly believes it's possible -- for many of the same reasons that others believe it's not.
Go ahead, tell him that Blaine Gabbert's nine touchdown passes were the fewest of any QB with at least 10 starts, which means Jones-Drew could face a steady dose of eight- and nine-man fronts. Remind him that the Jaguars have no proven backup running back, which could lead to fatigue and heavy legs for him late in the season. And don't forget to point out that Jones-Drew is coming off a serious injury.
He'll look you the eyes, tell you you're right, then point to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who faced similar circumstances last season and still ran for a franchise-record 2,097 yards.
"That's what I'm thinking," he says while doing unweighted squats in the Bruins training room. "Adrian Peterson."
He's also thinking about the criticism Gabbert is receiving, notably a Yahoo! Sports column in which a former Jaguars coach anonymously referred to Gabbert as "Blame Gabbert" because of his alleged refusal to accept responsibility for his struggles.
"That pisses me off," says Jones-Drew. "I guess I was raised differently. You don't talk bad about someone unless you look him in his eyes and say it to his face. I was taught to be a man and put your name on it. Blaine doesn't deserve that at all. It's not all on him. He's a very capable quarterback."
Asked if the Jaguars can win with Gabbert as the starter, Jones-Drew answers: "Yeah, definitely. But he's like any quarterback -- if you consistently put pressure in their face they're not going to play well. That's no different from Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Blaine is in his third system in three years; that's tough. But I believe if we're able to protect him better he'll be OK."
Jones-Drew, whose wife and three kids remained in Jacksonville while he attended school, is scheduled to return to Florida this week after concluding his finals, which call for him to submit two six-page reports in one class; a 20-page paper in another; and one two-page and two four-page essays in another.
He demands as much of himself in the classroom as he does on the football field, which is why he bristled earlier in the quarter when he received a C+ on a paper in "U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction." Not good enough.
"You must grade him just like you would anyone else," says Prof. Joan Waugh. "It wouldn't be fair if you didn't, and I'm sure Maurice wouldn't want it any other way. He's in very difficult circumstances because of his injury and being away for a while, but he's done fine. One has to admire that dedication."
Jones-Drew's decision to return was not solely about fulfilling his promise to his grandmother, Christina Jones; it was also about preparing himself for life after football. His head is filled with thoughts of law school ... and becoming a general manager ... and being a partner in an NFL ownership group.
That's down the road, though. In the meantime, he still has four or five quarters before he receives his undergraduate degree. The return to UCLA was so jarring initially that Jones-Drew considered withdrawing. There were reports upon reports to be written, pages upon pages to be read. It's fine if you're conditioned for that type of workload, but it had been eight years since he last sat in a university classroom.
"I almost just stopped coming," he says. "It was too hard. I thought they were going to ease me back in, but they didn't. It was crazy. But it would have been too easy to say 'to hell with this' and go on about your day. I'm glad I stuck it out. You're never too old to learn, and that's been one of the great things: I'm about to turn 28 and I'm learning things that I didn't know. I've also met some good people, so it's been a really positive experience."