ATHENS, Ga. — The night before deadline day, Reshad Jones thought he was gone.
No, he wasn’t going to be a first-round or even a first-day selection, but he had always dreamed of a career in the NFL. As the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft approached, the dream seemed so close to a reality that it was easy to be overcome with visions of a prosperous future as a pro.
In the 12 hours between deciding to leave Georgia and his announcement the following day, however, Jones came to a realization. He may have wanted the bright future in the NFL, but he wasn’t ready for it.
“I just wanted to come back and be a leader in all aspects — in the classroom, off the field, just in general,” Jones said. “I had some more room to grow as a man, personally, and just mature, so I wanted to come back and mature mentally and physically.”
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Less than a month after passing up a shot at the pros, Jones is more certain that he made the right decision.
On the field in 2008, Jones was solid. He finished second on the team with 76 tackles, and he was the only member of the secondary to record an interception — picking off five passes at free safety, including one in the Bulldogs’ bowl game against Michigan State.
A look at the stat sheet, however, hardly told the story of Jones’ sophomore season. His numbers where right where he wanted them to be, but he knew his game hadn’t reached its potential.
By midseason, Georgia’s defense had become a source of consternation for fans, giving up huge yardage and allowed opposing offenses to light up the scoreboard. Through a handful of ugly plays and a perceived lack of effort, Jones became the primary on-field target for frustrated fans. The animosity culminated after a 45-42 loss to Georgia Tech in which Jones missed several key tackles that sprung Tech runners for big gains.
Jones said he never paid much attention to the criticism from fans, but he knew his season hadn’t matched the expectations he had for himself. The stat sheet had told him he was ready for the next level, but in his heart, he knew he had more to accomplish.
“I think I had a pretty good season stats-wise, but I know I haven’t played my best ball games yet,” Jones said. “Once I leave, I want to be known on everybody’s radar as one of the top safeties in the country, which I think I am.”
There were other factors, too. By the time the 2009 season begins, Jones expects to be 12 credits shy of graduation. While playing in the NFL is his dream, getting his diploma has long been the dream of the grandparents who raised him.
Jones wanted to take care of his other family, too — the men he had gone to battle with every Saturday for the past two seasons. Starting safety CJ Byrd was graduating, and starting corner Asher Allen was headed to the NFL. Without much experience remaining in the secondary, Jones knew he was needed.
“A couple top guys left, and I felt like I was the next person in line to be the leader,” Jones said. “I didn’t want to just leave the guys with nobody with any experience back there. So I felt like I could come back and help the guys out.”
It wasn’t that Jones wasn’t a key cog to the defense before, but his decision to return — and more importantly, his reasons for making that choice — marked a turning point in his career.
Jones decision to put off his dreams for another year and finish what he started both on the field and in the classroom illustrated a new level of maturity, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said.
When Jones was leaning toward the NFL, Martinez knew it wasn’t the right choice, but he didn’t beg his safety to stay. He simply laid the facts out on the table and left it to Jones to make the right choice.
“The thing about it was that it happens every year. You’re just trying to give him the right information and find out what he’s listening to, what’s the reason why he might be leaving,” Martinez said. “He made the right decision for himself, and it’s going to be great for us.”
Jones’ return strengthens Georgia’s defensive backfield significantly. He’ll move to Byrd’s strong safety position, while John Knox, Quintin Banks, Bryan Evans and a handful of freshmen will battle for free safety.
Last fall was a stellar semester academically for Jones, but he still wants that diploma. Last season was a breakout year for the first-year starter, but his team fell short of its goals. Last year, Jones was dreaming of a future in the NFL. This year, he wants to take the steps to make sure it happens.
“I just knew I wasn’t finished at Georgia,” Jones said. “I looked at the pros and cons, and I know I haven’t accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish at Georgia — just me being great and helping my team be great.”