Now the national-champion quarterback is also a shining example for educators preaching to kids to get a degree.
It's a turnaround almost as dramatic as the one he has taken in his Ohio State career over the past two months.
The big quarterback surprised a packed crowd Thursday, declaring at his old high school in Cleveland that he would stay at Ohio State rather than jump into the NFL draft.
''My decision was very simple,'' he said. ''I'm going to return next year for school.''
That sentence was met with audible gasps in the gymnasium, then applause from students and teachers.
Many thought that Jones, who could have jumped to the pros after a year spent at military school, a redshirt season and a year capped by starring for the Buckeyes, would make himself available for the draft.
After all, it was just over two years ago he posted on his Twitter account: ''Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS''
Coach Urban Meyer suspended him. Jones later apologized, and now calls it an embarrassing moment in his life. He said he has matured a lot since sending out that message. He proved it by saying he was coming back to the Buckeyes.
In his only college starts, he led Ohio State to wins in the Big Ten title game, the Sugar Bowl and Monday night's national championship.
''It's everybody's dream and goal when they play football or any collegiate sport to make it to the next level,'' he said, wearing a gray T-shirt with his nickname ''12 Gauge'' because of his uniform number and shotgun-like arm. ''At my point in my career, I feel like it's best for me to go back to school. One of the most important things for me to do is graduate.
''When I make that decision to play in the NFL, I want to be done with school. I want to devote all of my time and all my effort to the film room and getting better at playing the quarterback position.''
Just a few weeks after coming from anonymity to take over the Ohio State quarterback job, his decision was broadcast live on ESPN.
The cable network's draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., said Jones could go as high as the second round of the draft. He, like many football experts, believed Jones, who recently became a father, would jump to the pros.
''We put everything on a scale for him and education outweighed everything else. This shows the maturity he does have,'' said his mentor and coach at Glenville Academic Campus, Ted Ginn. ''I'm so proud. He's a great kid, very intelligent, smart. I think the biggest thing to him was to be able to say to his baby, `I went back,' and to set an example for all kids.''
Jones, his family, Ginn and Meyer met earlier Thursday in Cleveland.
The day after the championship game in Texas, Meyer had said there might not ever be a better time for Jones to make the move to the NFL.
''Cardale's brand right now has never been stronger, might never be stronger in his life,'' Meyer said.
Instead, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt sophomore will battle two-time Big Ten player of the year Braxton Miller, a graduate student still recovering from shoulder surgery, and this year's quarterback of the year in the conference, sophomore-to-be J.T. Barrett (recovering from a broken ankle) for the starting job next season.
''I want to go back and compete for the spot,'' he said. ''I don't want anything given to me.''
Barrett led the Buckeyes all season after Miller reinjured his shoulder 12 days before the season opener, setting school records with 3,772 yards of total offense and 34 passing touchdowns. But when he was injured in the fourth quarter of the last regular-season game, Jones took over in style.
He threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the 59-0 Big Ten title rout of Wisconsin and was selected the game MVP. Then, in the Sugar Bowl against top-ranked Alabama, Jones ran for 43 yards and threw for 243 yards and a touchdown in a 42-35 victory.
In the national title game, he continually made huge plays. He ran for 38 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown, plus completed 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown in a 42-20 victory over Oregon.
Jones was asked what he would say to people who believe he's making a mistake.
''I can't say what I want to say to them,'' he said with a laugh. ''It's my life. I have to live it. Not them.''
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