AUBURN, Ala. — Jonathan Jones’ body betrayed him at every turn last season.
Expected to be Auburn’s No. 3 cornerback, he suffered a freak injury during fall camp, slipping on wet steps and breaking a bone in his ankle. That mishap caused him to miss the Tigers’ first four games. Upon his return against Ole Miss, he made one of the game’s highlight plays, downing a Steven Clark punt at the 1-yard line to pin the Rebels deep in their own territory. Soon after, another leg injury forced him to sit out against Western Carolina and see only limited snaps versus Texas A&M. Halfway through the season, Jones had finally regained his health.
But in the biggest game of the year, misfortune struck once more.
One of the fastest players on the team, Jones was a standout on the kickoff coverage unit. On Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard touchdown return — which gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with just 4:31 remaining in the BCS championship game — Jones’ hamstring went out on him.
All he could think about was continuing to play.
“Coach (Gus) Malzahn always says when you get hurt, don't lay on the field,” Jones said. “That was always in my mind, get up, keep trying to play. Keep trying to fight.”
It was just one of the many plays that have kept Auburn’s players up at night, second-guessing themselves after their narrow 34-31 defeat to the Seminoles.
“It was difficult,” Jones said. “It was difficult, but, like I said, it was a learning curve and it helped me get better as a person.”
Beyond that, it showed where he needed to improve as a player.
Namely, ridding himself of the injuries that ravaged his 2013 campaign.
“When you're playing cornerback, it's one of those positions you have to be on your game, you have to be healthy and I wasn't really healthy last season,” Jones said. “So, I wasn't able to be 100 percent myself.”
Provided he stays healthy this fall, Jones will get every chance to prove he’s worthy of being a starter. With the graduation of Chris Davis, rising senior Jonathon Mincy shifted from field corner to the boundary. Jones then slid into Mincy’s old spot at the field corner. A national champion in the 110-meter hurdles during his high school days in Carrollton, Ga., Jones’ has ideal speed to play field corner, lining up on the wide side of the field and often tasked with covering more ground than the boundary corner.
Everything is still a work in progress for Jones at this point, though.
“Tackling. Coverage. Getting the basics down,” he said, noting the things he’s worked on this spring. “You can always aspire as a cornerback to work on your technique and the little things. I definitely want to start with the little things first.”
And thanks to cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith, Jones has transformed every aspect of his game.
“Corners have certain things that they do, like pressing, off coverage and stuff like that,” Jones said. “He worked with me and got the wasted motions out. We're working on being in good position and deep balls.”
Ellis Johnson doesn’t have any concerns about Jones’ talent. He’s more worried about the junior’s durability.
“Jonesy, we've just got to keep him healthy,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said. “We know he can play. He'll have some roles to play, I'm sure, on third down and long.”
That’s not good enough for Jones. He doesn’t want to sub in simply because opponents spread the field. He wants the kind of playing time only a starter receives.
All the hard work he's put in this spring, Jones hopes, will pay dividends when the Tigers reconvene for their preseason camp.
“In the end, you get whatever you earn,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing right now — trying to earn me a spot.”