Please forgive Ole Miss senior defensive back Jaylon Jones for not looking back at his 2020 football experience with the fondest of memories.
After a summer filled with nasal swabs and spitting into tubes due to the coronavirus outbreak and the protocols that came with it, Jones was able to play only four games last fall before being shelved with an upper-body injury. Jones could not compete in the first Egg Bowl with Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State's Mike Leach as coaches, nor could he help the Rebels in their 26-20 topping of Indiana at the Outback Bowl that capped a 5-5 season in Kiffin's debut.
The Rebels went 4-5 during the regular season, with their Dec. 12 trip to Texas A&M canceled for coronavirus-related reasons.
"I took lessons and experiences away from last year and just trusting in God's plan," Jones said at SEC Media Days. "I got to learn more about the mental side of the game since I physically couldn't be out there. I still game-prepped like I was playing, and I served as extra eyes for the defense."
Jones amassed 27 tackles in his four contests, which could hardly be described as defensive masterpieces, as Ole Miss allowed at least 33 points in all of them. Florida came to Oxford to open the season and riddled the Rebels 51-35, but Ole Miss had just enough the following week to travel to Kentucky and rally past the Wildcats 42-41 in overtime.
The third game was against top-ranked Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and the Rebels played the Crimson Tide to a 42-42 deadlock early in the fourth quarter until Alabama broke free for a 63-48 triumph. That would be the Tide's closest call of their 10-game regular season, but Ole Miss surrendered an eye-popping 37 first downs and 723 total yards.
"It was a roller-coaster experience," Jones said. "It was a good, exciting game, and it was a night game against the best team in the country, but we couldn't get a stop. Just thinking about that game can still bother me, because it was an ugly game for the defense, but it showed that our offense could score points.
"I wish we could have at least gotten one or two stops to help out what our offense was doing."
Last year: 5-5 (4-5 SEC)
Season opener: Sept. 6 vs. Louisvile in Atlanta (8 p.m. on ESPN)
Fun fact: Lane Kiffin’s two games as an SEC head coach against Alabama were the 12-10 loss with Tennessee in 2009 and last year’s 63-48 defeat that was 42-42 early in the fourth quarter.
Up next: Mississippi State
Ole Miss returns 10 defensive starters from a year ago and could have brought back all 11 had linebacker Jacquez Jones not entered the NCAA transfer portal and landed at Kentucky. Having 10 defensive starters back is always nice, but there will have to be significant improvement after last year's unit allowed a league-worst 38.3 points per game.
The Rebels yielded at least 20 points in every game, with the season low against Indiana.
"We struggled in all areas on defense last year," Kiffin said, "but we did play well in the bowl game, so that's how we ended the year, and hopefully we take off from there. It was just challenging, whether it was injuries or other guys trying to learn a system. Also, you're playing all SEC games, so you don't have any nonconference games.
"That would have helped statistically, but even more important would have been to see early on how guys play and being able to play your backups hopefully. We didn't have that. We were playing SEC offenses every week, and it was a year of great offenses and really elite players, so it was very challenging."
Jones hopes to lead the Rebels in their road to defensive recovery as the only 2016 signee in the Hugh Freeze regime still around. The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder from Allen, Texas, has overcome the adversity of not only last year but a season-ending knee injury in the 2018 opening win over Texas Tech, when he had seven tackles and a 94-yard kickoff return before getting hurt.
His versatility has been on display by starting at cornerback, free safety and strong safety during his time in Oxford, which he hopes can end with a first winning record since his arrival.
"We've got a lot a lot of guys returning, and we're not inexperienced anymore," Jones said. "We're going into our second year under this defensive scheme. We had spring ball this year, and everybody is a lot more confident in the scheme.
"Guys are executing already, and we feel more ahead. This team has a swagger after the way last year ended. The future is bright for us."
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