AUBURN, Ala. — Jonathan Jones was confident.
Auburn’s sophomore corner recalled his first tackle of the season, which he made in the first quarter of last week’s 45-10 romp over Florida Atlantic. On the play, 6-foot-4, 230-pound Owl tight end Nexon Dorvilus made a beeline for Jones, towering over the 5-foot-10, 180-pound defender on a screen pass. It didn’t matter, as Jones shed the block and dropped Florida Atlantic wide receiver Daniel McKinney for a 1-yard loss.
There was no doubt in Jones’ mind he could have made the same play last season.
But thanks to the offseason conditioning program of Ryan Russell, things were made a bit easier.
“It would've been tougher to get off the block (last year), being smaller,” he said. “Once you put on muscle, it gets easier to get off blocks.”
Jones went on to make one more tackle in last Saturday’s rout, notching a bone-crunching hit on a kick return. It was the first time this season Jones had seen significant playing time, with injuries hounding him at seemingly every turn in prior weeks. In fall camp, he broke a bone in his ankle after slipping on wet steps, sidelining him for the first four games of the season. He returned against Ole Miss — coming up with one signature play, downing a Steven Clark punt at the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter — before suffering another leg injury, forcing him to sit out the Western Carolina contest.
Josh Holsey’s season-ending injury changed everything for Jones, though. With top backup Ryan White shifting from corner to boundary safety to account for Holsey's loss, Jones was pressed into duty the last two weeks. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was pleased to have him, but noted all the time Jones has missed has him playing catch-up.
“He’s 100 percent physically, but his technique is off,” Johnson said. “He hasn’t had enough time back to really be polished in his technique. This week will be important — maybe next week — for him to getting back to his old self. I just think he’s lost some of his fundamentals and technique.”
Jones didn’t dispute that point, conceding there were areas he’s still trying to “knock off the rust.” After having to watch so much of the Tigers’ success this season, however, he was thankful to be healthy enough to play.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I've been waiting for the opportunity to get back out there with my teammates, just have fun and contribute.”
It’s a far cry from earlier in the year, when Jones was still battling injuries and nowhere close to optimum health.
During those frustrating times, he turned to his faith.
“Praying with my mom, praying through it and trying to stay positive,” Jones said. “Motivate the teammates, try to stay involved as much as I could even though I was hurt.”
Now that he’s back, Jones’ role is only expected to increase as the season progresses.
As Johnson would attest, the Tigers need his services now more than ever.
“We’re very thin back there,” he said of the secondary. “Getting him back was very important. We lost our leading returning tackler (safety Demetruce McNeal) at the beginning of the season, never played a down. We keep moving guys inside, (so) it’s very important that Jonathan come along and give us some quality depth at corner.”
Jones wouldn’t make any promises in that regard.
Instead, just as he did throughout his rehab, Jones will continue plugging away.
“As soon as I could get back to help the team, that's what I was trying to do,” he said. “It (feels) good to get back in the groove of things, to get the rust off.”