When asked about the qualities of an ideal defensive back, Tide secondary coach Chris Ball listed three virtues. "Foot speed, open field tackling ability and ability to guard the deep ball," Ball said.
Charles Jones is all of those things for the Tide, entering his final season as the Tide's veteran starting free safety.
Heading into the 2003 season, Jones wants to make his veteran presence known both on defense and in the locker room. "I'd like to be like a coach on the field," Jones said. "I just want to be consistent."
Like all of the Tide seniors, free safety Charles Jones is entering his final season playing for his third coaching staff.
Jones was a key cog in a secondary unit that went from defensive liability in 2001 to a major strength of the Tide team last season.
During the just-completed spring drills, Jones absorbed the new defensive system of defensive coordinator Joe Kines.
Jones and the rest of the secondary will adjust to a new scheme that will feature a great deal of new coverages, different than those favored under former defensive coordinator Carl Torbush. "We have some ‘cover four,' we're not straight zone or straight man," Ball said. "The reads are different, the fits are different."
The veteran Jones feels confident in the new scheme. "Defense is defense," Jones said. "There's only so much you can do on defense."
After not playing as a freshman and seeing limited action in his sophomore campaign, Jones earned the starting free safety spot in spring and was awarded the "Bobby Johns Most improved Defensive Back" award by the coaching staff.
Last season, Jones started every single game at free safety and was the leading tackler among defensive backs, with 86 tackles, one for a loss of 30 yards. He also grabbed a pair of interceptions.
Against Mississippi State, Jones was a playmaking dynamo, totaling 10 tackles, an interception, and also jarring loose a pair of fumbles.
Jones has a well-deserved reputation as a hard hitter at safety. He forced team-high three fumbles last season.
At 6-0, 180 pounds Jones has solid size for a safety. But his best attribute is a tenacious, hard-hitting attitude and excellent foot speed that allows him to roam at will in the defensive backfield.
"I didn't expect him to be as big as he was," Ball said. "He's got great instincts."
"It helps a little bit, you know how you're supposed to run the offense," Jones said of his previous offensive experience in high school.
In 2001, their opposition repeatedly scorched the Tide secondary. The season for the secondary reached rock bottom as LSU quarterback Rohan Davey passed for 528 yards and a pair of scores in a LSU victory that was more lopsided than the scoreboard indicated.
A firestorm of criticism encircled the secondary, but from this fire a new, veteran group emerged, tempered by the flames of adversity.
In 2002, the secondary went from mortal weakness to major strength, as the Tide only gave up an average of 177 yards per game. Jones was a major part of the secondary renaissance as he was a consistent, durable contributor in every game last season.
According to Jones, maturity and hungry underclassmen such as Charlie Peprah contributed to the turnaround. "All of us matured, Smoke (Gerald Dixon), Hirchel Bolden and Waine Bacon and I," Jones said. "Young guys pushed us and made us better."
Jones also relishes the challenge of facing top opposition every week in the fierce vertical battles of SEC play. "You're always getting challenged. Making plays, shutting down receivers," Jones said. "In the SEC, you face a top receiver every game."
In the spring, with Head Coach Mike Price's new multi-wideout sets, Jones got a lot of work covering the speedy Tide wideouts.
So who does Jones see as the Tide's toughest cover?