Jonathan Jones looking to lead defensive resurgence for Auburn

Jonathan Jones looking to lead defensive resurgence for Auburn

July 21st, 2015 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones had a team-high six interceptions last season, including two in this game at Mississippi State.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

It's not uncommon for college football players to establish objectives before each season.

Auburn senior cornerback Jonathan Jones has done just that for 2015, and he's set the bar rather high.

"My goal for this fall is not to give up any completions, and that includes getting more interceptions," Jones said last week at SEC Media Days. "Our first job is to make sure they don't complete the ball, and I definitely want to improve on that and not take a step back."

The 5-foot-10, 181-pounder from Carrollton, Ga., was Auburn's Johnny-on-the-spot last season, collecting six interceptions to tie for ninth nationally in that category. He routinely came up with clutch changes of possession to help the Tigers stay in the national championship picture until early November, when the bottom fell out with four losses in the final five games.

Jones signed with Auburn in 2012 and played that season under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. He played the past two seasons under Ellis Johnson and is now under the tutelage of Will Muschamp, the sport's highest-paid assistant who was Florida's head coach last year.

Auburn

Last season: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)

Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta (3:30 p.m. on CBS)

Fun fact: Auburn and Georgia have a league-high six assistants who played for SEC schools, with the Tigers represented by Rhett Lashlee (Arkansas), Will Muschamp (Georgia), Rodney Garner (Auburn), Travaris Robinson (Auburn), Tim Horton (Arkansas) and Dameyune Craig (Auburn).

COMING WEDNESDAY

Florida

"We've been through changes before, and it's not that hard to let go, because you have to move on," Jones said. "The biggest thing that Coach Muschamp wants from us is effort, and he is going to expect that at every practice and every day. In his defense, he likes to bring pressure, and that leaves us in a lot of one-on-one situations, so you have to play one-on-one a lot.

"There is not a lot of safety help, so he needs corners that he can depend on each down to be alone."

Jones began displaying his dependability early last season against Kansas State, collecting a first-quarter interception in the end zone that wound up being one of the biggest plays in Auburn's 20-14 win. He had two interceptions against both Mississippi State and South Carolina, including one in the end zone on the final play against the Gamecocks to preserve a 42-35 triumph.

One of his two pickoffs against Mississippi State occurred in the end zone as well, and his sixth interception occurred in the Iron Bowl, helping Auburn build a 33-21 lead against the Crimson Tide.

Ultimately the Tigers lost to Alabama, 55-44, and ultimately Auburn had a disaster of a defense that allowed 30 or more points in its final seven games against Bowl Subdivision competition. The Tigers ranked 10th in the SEC in rushing defense and 12th in pass defense.

"We have to put a chip on our shoulder and improve," Jones said. "You can look up the numbers, and it's no secret we gave up a lot of passing yards. We've cost us some games."

Auburn returns eight defenders with starting experience, including Jones and Jonathan Ford in the secondary and Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy at linebacker. A ninth defender has starting SEC experience, with former Georgia safety Tray Matthews now eligible after sitting out 2014 due to NCAA transfer rules.

The biggest addition this year could be redshirt sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson, who had 7.5 tackles and four sacks during his Freshman All-American season in 2013, when the Tigers went 12-2 and played for the national championship. Lawson missed last season with a torn ACL.

"Our front seven should be a strength, but our secondary will be thin," Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. "It starts with the pass rush, and last year we didn't have a pass rush. We had to take some chances and put some DBs on some islands.

"The bottom line is that we've just got to get better."

Jones missed out on some of the fun in 2013 because of a broken ankle at the end of preseason camp that kept him out until the fifth game against Ole Miss. The fast-paced Tigers averaged 39.5 points a game in '13 and 35.5 points per contest last season, and they have that ability to be explosive again with quarterback Jeremy Johnson, running backs Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas and receivers Duke Williams, Melvin Ray, Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis.

Auburn was predicted last week to win its third SEC title in six seasons, but the defense will have to be vastly improved for that to ring true.

"The offense is going to put up points, and we've got to take it upon ourselves to stop the other team," Jones said. "I feel like we lost confidence as a team in general last season and not only on defense. We've got to handle adversity better this year."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.