Jonathan Jones may have as much untapped potential as anyone on the Auburn roster.
Will this be the year this junior turns promise into performance?
To be fair, it's not Jones' fault that he ended his second varsity season in 2013 as a peripheral guy. He suffered a broken ankle during fall camp and didn't return until mid-season, well after Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy had become secondary mainstays. Assistant coach Melvin Smith believes in letting his top cornerbacks work most snaps -- if not all of them -- so being the third guy in a two-man rotation can be a lonely spot on Saturdays.
Yet Jones is a capable defender, which is a huge credit to his work ethic. He was a track superstar in high school, winning state titles in the 100-meter hurdles, 300-meter hurdles and the long jump. Still, he was considered a project on the football field -- albeit one with remarkable athletic ability and intellect.
Jones was at least solid during his short deployments last season. With Davis now playing in the NFL, Auburn needs at least one new starting cornerback (possibly two given Mincy's recent arrest) and Jones is the best returning candidate. Joe Turner, a junior college transfer from California, should emerge as a strong contender as well.
So what does Auburn have in Jones? He's a sharp, quick-twitch player who can stick with almost any receiver. Size is an issue, though, and the proliferation of tall receivers within the Southeastern Conference means Jones will have to get a bit more physical to mitigate that deficiency.
Still, he's been short all his life and working against beasts like Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams will yield valuable lessons. He's been preparing for this fall for a long time.
WHY HE COULD BE HIGHER: Let's be real -- Jones is an incredible athlete who is learning to turn those gifts into useful football skills. Receivers cannot elude him; he's too quick. If Jones earns a starting job and engineers ways to neutralize tall, brawny receivers, he could be an outstanding player this season. There's really nothing holding him back.
WHY HE COULD BE LOWER: He sure looks small out there. If Turner and perhaps one of the new signees bursts on the scene during fall camp, Jones could find himself back in a peripheral role on defense. He'll always be an excellent special teams guy, so Jones always will have value, but he needs to get snaps on defense to make an impact week to week. That's not a guaranteed outcome.
2014 OUTLOOK: Jones reminds me of Jerraud Powers, which is a huge compliment. Powers was undersized during his Auburn days (2005-08) yet has started 58 games during the past five NFL seasons. Powers arrived on campus as a more refined player, sure, but Jones is a better athlete and has the same kind of aptitude that put Powers ahead of similiarly skilled players. Jones has a lot of upside and I expect him to be a solid yet overlooked starter this fall.
- Jay G. Tate