AUBURN — There’s a lot Jonathan Jones needs to improve on.
The Auburn cornerback has been a regular contributor on special teams, but lacks game experience in the secondary.
Deficient skills haven’t kept Jones off the field — far from it, according to his coaches — it’s been a rash of injuries. In his two seasons on the Plains, Jones has sat more games due to injury (five) than he has starts (three).
“I just pray for good health,” Auburn cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith said. “Jonathan has not been healthy. He’s had some bad luck, but he hasn’t missed a practice. He did a really good job for me this spring, I was impressed, and he’s having a really good fall camp.”
With starting field corner Jonathon Mincy suspended for at least the start of the season opener with Arkansas, Jones is set to return to the starting lineup for the first time since late in the 2012 season.
The coaching staff is confident in the 5-foot-10, 182-pound junior to deliver on the promise he shows on the practice field.
“We look at JJ as a starter,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “That being said, I don’t think he’s a 75-play guy. He has excellent cover skills, great third down player; we’ll be very comfortable if he starts.”
Jones had just 11 tackles in an injury-plagued 2013 season.
He missed the first four games of last season due to a broken ankle suffered when he slipped on some steps.
“Just going down the steps, had my cleats on,” Jones said, “and it just happened.”
He returned for the Ole Miss game, made a key special teams play, and got hurt again, though not seriously.
Jones played on defense in the second half of the season, then the injury bug got him again in the BCS National Championship game. He pulled his hamstring during Kermit Whitfield’s kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The cliché of worrying about what you can control applies to Jones like it does all of his teammates, but part of Smith’s message for him this offseason also focused on his wellbeing.
“First he wanted me to stay healthy,” Jones said. “After that, it was keep focusing on the little things that make you a batter corner: finishing, finishing on plays when you’re near the ball, finishing on the ball when it’s in the air.”
Smith has been very high on Jones for the last year, lauding his skills and comparing the Carrollton, Georgia native to the far more experienced Mincy.
“He has great speed. He’s really polished,” Smith said. “I’ve been on him about his technique. I want him to bend more sometimes in man coverage. … I love Jonathan. He’s athletic, he can run. He’s smart, he understands what I want, he knows what I want. I foresee some special stuff for him.”
Everything is predicated on the big if — can Jones stay healthy to live up to the praise he receives? Auburn will know on Aug. 30.
“I see Jonathan as a starter, as an SEC winner,” Smith said. “I see him in the same light that I see Mincy. … The only thing is JJ’s got to do it in a game.”