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November 18, 2010Before the fans, his coaches, probably even Julio Jones himself had an inkling, University of Alabama senior quarterback Greg McElroy knew that the junior wide receiver was going to have a huge night at Tennessee last month.
It was the Crimson Tide's second offensive snap of the game and No. 8 lined up to the right, worked his way downfield into a gap and turned toward the sideline where the pass sailed perfectly over the cornerback and into Jones' hands before the Volunteers' safety could get over to help out.
It wasn't the impressive catch that got McElroy's attention so much, rather the coverage. It told him that the Volunteers were going to try and man-up against Jones, with just one defender, and take their chances he wouldn't torch them.
"It's almost, I don't want to say disrespect, any time they press Julio without a safety over the top it's like 'What are you doing?' is kind of what I'm thinking in my head," said McElroy, who proceeded to repeatedly burn the home team by going to his favorite receiver again, and again, and again ...
When the cigar smoke eventually cleared from Neyland Stadium that night, Jones had caught 12 passes and set an Alabama single-game receiving record with 221 yards.
"I was waiting for that to happen," said sophomore safety Robert Lester, who grew up about a block away from Jones in Foley, Alabama.
What made it even more remarkable was that Jones did it less than two weeks after having surgery to repair a fracture in his left hand.
"That's crazy," junior center William Vlachos said.
"I'm not surprised anything that Julio does," said junior running back Mark Ingram, who has also seen his teammate endure shoulder, knee and wrist injuries along with a sports hernia. "He's a warrior. He just goes out and gives his all every time he steps on the field. If he can play, he's going to play. If he hurts little bit, he'll play through the pain."
For every Alabama legend there's always that one game that no one ever seems to forget, and for Jones this was clearly it. He punished Tennessee with nearly every kind of reception possible: slants, diving, sideline with only his toes in-bounds, and, of course, deep with completions of 47, 42 and 38 yards.
Yet every time Jones touched the ball he felt the bone-jarring pain, and still tried to make his trademark downfield blocks - albeit scaled down a bit.
"As far as blocking my man and dominating, I had some that were good but I didn't block like the way I want to block," he said, noting that's why he doesn't necessarily consider Tennessee his best game. "I block so they can't get to the runner, but my blocks I want to take them to the sideline, on the ground. I really couldn't do that."
Jones initially sustained the fracture after making his first reception Oct. 9 at South Carolina, when his stiff-arm got caught up in the defender who basically tried rip his head off.
"I knew after that play because I went to the sideline and my hand started hurting," Jones described. "I pressed down on my hand and it was moving, the bone was moving. I didn't tell the trainers but I told the strength coach, Scott Cochran: 'I think I just broke my hand, don't tell nobody. I'm going to wait until halftime.' I didn't want to make it a big issue."
Somehow, Jones remarkably finished with eight receptions for 118 yards and one touchdown. The only thing that hurt worse than making a catch was trying open his palms like he would to field a kick, thus the reason he was pulled on special teams. The next day doctors cut into the outer part of his hand below the ring finger.
"There are six screws in there," he said pointing to the scar, in addition to the plate.
The subsequent week coaches limited him during practices and Jones was pulled near the end of the first quarter against Ole Miss after aggravating the injury while trying to catch a slant pass that bent his finger back.
"My hand had no strength," Jones said. "They had to cut through the muscle in my hand to get to the bone. So the Ole Miss game it was feeling like the South Carolina game, when it broke. But I tried to go out there and see what I could do but my hand didn't have any strength."
Consequently, when he and Saban met the next day, the Sunday before visiting Knoxville, Jones asked that the coaching staff not hold him back during practices, that he fully participate and endure the pain. It was the only way he could be ready to face Tennessee.
"Julio obviously is a special talent," Saban said. "One thing that's great about him, and usually you don't see a lot from the wide receivers position, you see a lot of guys who are selfish me guys, not so much team guys and that's not the case with our guys. We are very fortunate and obviously with Julio being the frontrunner of that pack as a leader and with his play.
We try to learn from what he does and the way he executes. He's definitely a great asset to have not only for us as an offense but to us as a team as well."
Jones followed up the Tennessee game with 10 receptions against LSU, which had him on pace to become Alabama's third 1,000-yard receiver and break both of D.J. Hall's single-season school records for 1,056 receiving yards (2006) and 67 receptions (2007).
However, to surpass Hall's career mark of 2,923 yards, Jones, who just reached 2,000, would have to stay for his final season. Although he doesn't "really care about numbers. That's why I picked this school, because I want to win championships," Jones also isn't ruling it out either.
It hasn't quite hit him yet that these last few games could be it for him here, but the more he adds to his legacy at the Capstone the closer he may be to leaving and entering the National Football League Draft a year early.
"I'm trying to have a great career here at Alabama," he said. "I want to get my degree, but if I'm taken like just the first five, anything else I have to come back. I have to get my education. I know that's what my mom wants me to do, get my education, and she even told me when I came to college 'Get your education.'"
Jones is due to graduate next December with a degree in consumer affairs, and hopes to someday open his own business - perhaps in the landscaping industry. Regardless, he's obviously going to have some options.
"I'm a hands-on kind of guy," Jones said.