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November 5, 2010
The whispers have circulated in sports bars across the Southeast and on message boards all over cyberspace.
If Julio Jones is so good, why isn't he putting up bigger numbers? Could he be overrated?
Jones should have put all that foolishness to rest two weeks ago, when he caught 12 passes for a school-record 221 yards in a 41-10 rout of Tennessee. He can silence the skeptics once and for all Saturday by delivering another big performance when he lines up against LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson in a matchup of probable first-round picks.
Not that Jones is particularly concerned with his individual statistics. He's focusing on more important goals.
"I don't care about numbers," Jones said. "I'm not a numbers guy. I don't care about how many touchdowns I get or how many yards I have. As long as we win, I'm happy."
Alabama has done plenty of winning since Jones arrived on campus. He signed with Alabama as the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 4 overall prospect in a 2008 recruiting class loaded with talented wide receivers. Other standout receivers from that 2008 class include Georgia's A.J. Green, Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller, Washington's Jermaine Kearse, Arizona's Juron Criner and Arkansas' Greg Childs.
Jones has fewer touchdown catches than any of the other receivers on that list; he also has more victories than all of them. Alabama is 33-3 and has won one national championship in Jones' three seasons. In each of those seasons, Jones has led the Tide in receiving.
He knew when he signed with Alabama that he might be sacrificing individual numbers in the quest to win championships. Alabama has such a run-oriented tradition that only three players in school history have had more than 820 receiving yards in a single season (David Palmer in 1993, DJ Hall in 2006 and '07 and Jones in 2008).
A backfield that features Heisman winner Mark Ingram and former five-star prospect Trent Richardson certainly wasn't going to make Alabama throw the ball any more often. Jones caught 58 passes for 924 yards as a freshman, but he had just 43 receptions for 596 yards and four scores last season.
"I wanted to go someplace where I could win a national championship," said Jones, who attended Foley (Ala.) High. "They win championships here. I feel I went to the best place for me."
His decision may end up lowering his career totals, but it certainly hasn't lowered his draft stock. Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com, rates Jones as a strong first-round pick whenever he chooses to turn pro. Rang's website rates Jones behind only Green among receivers in the Class of 2012. Rang said he could imagine Jones slipping past the first round only if he ran a particularly poor time at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.6 or worse) or if medical reports showed any evidence of a recurring injury that could hinder his pro performance.
"It's the size and physicality he brings," Rang said. "When you have a guy his size [6 feet 4], you're not as concerned with how he can match up physically with the added competition at the NFL level.
"At the same time, you know he is coming from a pro-style offense. He knows that his ability to impact the game is not just limited to being a receiver in terms of catching passes, but also as a downfield blocker and things of that nature."
Jones also has proved he can play with pain. His record-breaking performance against Tennessee came two weeks after he broke his left hand in a 35-21 loss to South Carolina. He had surgeries on his left shoulder and left wrist and for a sports hernia after his freshman season. He had a bruised kneecap last season that sidelined him for a victory over North Texas.
"Probably the team means more to him than it does just about anybody," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He practices well every day. He works hard. He wants to be the best. He has a burning desire to do it. He's the same kind of person off the field. It doesn't surprise me that he's been able to handle some of the setbacks he's had with a tremendous amount of maturity. It hasn't affected his performance."
Jones said his hand is feeling better now, but he never expected the injury to knock him out for an extended period. He wasn't going to let anything interfere with his team's drive for a second consecutive national title.
"I'm just trying to be there for my teammates," he said. "It's bigger than me. Those guys are depending on me. They're looking for somebody to step up and make plays.
"If I was just playing football just because of me, I probably wouldn't be pushing this hard, but I've got other people depending on me -- my teammates. I don't want to let them down."
This season, the Tide have needed Jones more than expected. Ingram and Richardson give Alabama the nation's top running back tandem, but the Tide have struggled to establish a ground attack at times this season. They gained only 36 yards on 29 carries against South Carolina. They ran for only 100 yards on 34 carries in a victory over Ole Miss the following week.
That slump ended when Jones had his big game against Tennessee. Alabama's balanced attack helped the Tide rush for 210 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries that night.
Jones has caught 45 passes for 669 yards and three touchdowns this season, which means he already has exceeded his '09 totals in catches and receiving yards.
"Julio obviously is a special talent," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "One thing that's great about him [is his unselfishness]. Usually you don't see a lot from the wide receiver position; you see a lot of guys who are selfish 'me' guys, not so much team guys. That's not the case with our guys. We are very fortunate ... with Julio being the front-runner of that pack as a leader and with his play. We try to learn from what he does and the way he executes."
Jones has developed into a more polished player this season. Although his size has given him a physical advantage against most college defensive backs, Jones knew he couldn't rely exclusively on his 6-4, 220-pound frame as he takes his game to the next level.
"I usually relied on being physical to get open, but now I'm trying to be more fluid and trying to run my routes a little crisper," he said.
NFL scouts have noticed the difference.
"That's one of the things he clearly needed to work on," Rang said. "They're asking him to run some more complicated routes, some combo routes where he does have to show a little more of an understanding of how to get open rather than just bodying up against a defensive player, so to speak.
"That's an area where he's made steady improvement throughout his career. It appears it's been an area of focus this year."
The LSU game should show how much he has improved in that area.
Peterson is 6-1 and 222 pounds, meaning Jones won't have his typical size advantage.
Then again, Jones typically savors these types of opportunities.
He caught seven passes for 128 yards against LSU as a freshman. He had four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown against LSU last year, though a 73-yard touchdown in that game came while Peterson was on the sideline with cramps.
Jones often delivers his best performances against Alabama's best opponents. Isn't that the hallmark of an outstanding leader?
"Julio's probably as good a leader, as good a person, as hard a worker, with all the character and attitude you look for in a guy that's going to be an outstanding player," Saban said. "He has a tremendous amount of ability to go with it, but this guy's the hardest worker on our team."
That explains why Jones remains one of the nation's top receivers. And if his statistics don't tell the story, his teammates and NFL scouts will make the argument for him.