BC-FBC--T25-SEC Championship, 1st Ld-Writethru,0791
Haden-Jones bout could be SEC's main event
AP Photo GVP111, ALBD111, ALDM107
By MARK LONG
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AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- When Joe Haden arrived at Florida, he wanted to play quarterback. Then he realized Tim Tebow had that job secured.
He considered moving to receiver, then discovered Percy Harvin was the main man there.
Haden just wanted to get on the field, so he asked about playing cornerback. Coach Urban Meyer obliged, and Haden started learning the position. Three years later, he's got it down pat.
Meyer said this week that no one on his team is playing as well as Haden.
That didn't stop defensive coordinator Charlie Strong from telling Haden that Alabama receiver Julio Jones would "eat peanuts off his head" in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta, essentially challenging the 5-foot-11 defender for, literally, his tallest test of the season.
"I'm looking forward to that a whole lot," Haden said. "He's a really big, strong guy. Pretty fast. What I'm going to do is try to get my hands on him, throw off his timing and try to keep him off (balance) a little bit."
Jones has 40 receptions for 545 yards and four touchdowns this season. He started slow, catching just 13 passes in the first seven games. He missed one game and most of another because of a bruised right knee. But he's much more effective down the stretch.
He had a career-high nine catches for 83 yards last week against Auburn. Four of those receptions came on the game-winning drive that kept No. 2 Alabama undefeated.
"When you're guarding Julio one-on-one, he's not covered," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said.
Jones got open several times against Florida in Atlanta last year, especially early on. The sophomore from Foley, Ala., had a 64-yard reception on the Crimson Tide's second possession that set up Glen Coffee's 18-yard TD run that tied the game at 7. He finished with five catches for 124 yards.
The top-ranked Gators hope to do a better job on him Saturday, and much of the task will fall to Haden.
"He's a force for us and obviously he's played excellent in the defense," Meyer said. "He'll have his hands full with that big old receiver Julio."
Although the Haden-Jones matchup hasn't received nearly as much attention as defending Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, slowing down Alabama running back Mark Ingram, corralling return men Javier Arenas and Brandon James, or blocking massive Tide defensive tackle Terrence Cody, both teams believe it will be one to watch.
Because Jones and Haden are probably the best in the league at their positions, two of the best in the country and widely considered as top NFL prospects.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Jones has big-play ability, fearlessness across the middle and blocking skills. He averaged nearly 16 yards a reception as a freshman, and 13.6 this season despite battling injuries, playing with a first-year starting quarterback and being on a team that prefers to run the ball and play defense.
"Just because you do what you're supposed to do all the time doesn't necessarily mean you're going to go out there and have success," coach Nick Saban said. "But you've got to believe it gives you the best opportunity to have success. Julio's done a great job of that in the last three or four weeks."
Haden, meanwhile, had been Florida's most dependable special teams player, a lock-down cornerback, a tenacious blitzer and one of the team's best open-field tacklers. The junior from Fort Washington, Md., has 59 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions.
He's gone from quarterback-turned-defensive back to probably the best cornerback in the country and a consensus first-round NFL draft pick in April.
"It's been so much above and beyond what I ever expected it to be playing here," Haden said. "For coach Meyer to tell me that I'm playing as one of the best players in college football, it means a whole lot to me."
Meyer talked about letting Haden play some quarterback during the preseason. It never happened. Haden wasn't crushed. After all, he gave that up three years ago -- just before he switched to defense.
"At first, it was just a job," Haden said. "I didn't really know what was going on. I was playing more like a robot than playing with instincts. I wasn't worried about the formations or what the tendencies are. Now, it's just way more comfortable.
"It just feels like you know what they are going to do before they are doing it."