AUBURN, Ala. -- It was late in the first quarter. Auburn had already jumped out to a 21-0 lead over Florida Atlantic and looked well on its way to a rout. The Owls had just taken over at their own 9-yard line when Jonathan Jones blew up a screen and tackled the wide receiver behind the line of scrimmage on the first play.
Looking back it was just another tackle for loss in Auburn’s 45-10 victory, but for Jones, it was much more than that. It his first tackle in what has been a season plagued by injury.
“It felt good to get back in the groove of things, to get the rust off,” he said. “Once I made that play, I was in it for the rest of the game and was able to help contribute.”
The sophomore cornerback missed the first four games with a broken bone in his ankle, an injury he suffered when he slipped on some wet steps during fall camp. He returned against Ole Miss but played sparingly. He sat out the next game with a separate injury to his leg, and although he made the trip to Texas A&M, he hardly played against the Aggies.
“I was definitely frustrated,” Jones said. “But I've got good teammates and good coaches that helped me stay positive, look forward and know that I'll be back soon. I just prayed with my mom, prayed through it and tried to stay positive -- motivate the teammates, try to stay involved as much as I could even though I was hurt.”
Now, Jones is back and a major part of this Auburn defense.
“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.”
The excitement spilled over to the field Saturday. After making the tackle for loss, Jones broke up a pass on the very next play. He later energized both his teammates and the crowd with a bone-jarring hit on a kick return.
“He’s been getting a lot of reps in practice,” fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “They finally worked him in the rotation in the game, and he do what he always do. I expected that from him -- to be a big-time player, small guy that plays really big.”
For Auburn, Jones’ return couldn’t have come at a better time. The Tigers recently lost starting safety Joshua Holsey for the season with a torn ACL. The staff moved cornerback Ryan White to safety to make up for the loss, but that left very little depth behind Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy at the cornerback position.
“We’re very thin back there,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “Getting [Jones] back was very important. We had to move Ryan White inside with the loss of Holsey. We lost our leading returning tackler at the beginning of the season -- never played a down.
“We keep moving guys inside, so it’s very important that Rudy (Johnathan Ford) and Jonathan [Jones] come along and give us some quality depth at corner.”
In addition to losing Holsey, the Tigers also lost starting safety Demetruce McNeal, who was dismissed from the team during fall camp. They have been without at least four other defensive backs -- Jones, Chris Davis, T.J. Davis and Kamryn Melton -- at one point or another through the first eight games. Still, the unit is holding it together.
“We’re growing on it,” Whitehead said. “We lost a couple of key players, but guys stepped in and made remarkable moves. It’s been a great turnaround.”