This Jones is more than keeping up

If you had to name the most improved Alabama player from last season to now, few would argue with giving free safety Charles Jones the award. Pass coverage, tackling---you name it. In almost every aspect of the game Jones seems like a new player.

Saturday in Alabama's pivotal victory over Tennessee, Charles Jones hauled in his first career interception for the Crimson Tide. "That interception was a long time coming," he said laughing.

Through 12 games last season and eight more in 2002, Jones had manned the free safety position without a single INT. He'd had some chances before, only to have the football slip away. "Everybody's been on me about that," he said. "My teammates were saying ‘Charles, you ain't never going to get an interception if you keep on dropping them.' It was a great feeling to get my first one."

Jones (#20) in action last year versus Iowa State.

If he had to wait, at least Jones made his first one count. With Alabama ahead by only one touchdown, Tennessee was driving for a game-tying score.

Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione explained. "That was a big interception that Charley had. If you look back at the sequence of events, we had the ball stripped from Sam (Collins), which was a big turnover and gave them field position. Then we got Charley's interception and we go 80 yards for our second touchdown. That to me was a pivotal swing in the game.

"They got nothing, and we ended up eventually with seven points."

After recovering the Collins fumble, Tennessee took over possession with 6:26 left in the first half. Five plays later the Volunteers had driven all the way down to the Alabama six-yard line, and it looked to everyone watching that game momentum had taken on an orange tint.

But then along came Jones.

"We were in our goal-line coverage," Jones said, describing the play. "I was over the top (in coverage). There was only one Tennessee receiver left out there. I saw that we got pressure with our defensive line, and then I saw (Tennessee quarterback Casey) Clausen scrambling. The dude that I was supposed to cover started rolling toward him. I guess (Clausen) didn't see me. He just saw his dude.

"Clausen threw it right to me."

Currently tied for the team lead in tackles, Jones is easily one of Alabama's most improved players.

Last season the Tide secondary frankly struggled to contain Tennessee's receivers, but Saturday night was a different story. "We didn't want to make mistakes to let them in the game," Jones said. "We knew with the crowd that they might rally and gain some momentum. But we knew that if we played our game, we could dominate."

The Tide's 34-14 victory snapped Tennessee's longest winning streak in what historical has been a seriously streaky series. But Bama's defensive backs had their own streak to worry about. Jones explained, "All week Coach Fran was talking to us, reminding us that we hadn't gotten an interception off Tennessee since 1996. We were determined to change that.

"We were after turnovers and making big plays. We were going to end that streak and end the seven-game winning streak."

Five Volunteer turnovers aided the Alabama cause, and three of them were interceptions either caught or attributed to Tide defensive backs. "I'm really proud and happy for our secondary," Franchione said. "They're getting more confident all the time."

Jones definitely agreed. "We were totally confident. We came out and played our game. The only way Tennessee stood a chance is if we kept them in the game until the fourth quarter. But our main goal was to play a full game. Last year we played three quarters, but we didn't play the fourth quarter."

Jones also pointed to solid tackling as a key to Bama's win. "Our main problem last year was tackling that big tight end (Jason) Witten," Jones said. "We didn't tackle him like we should have. But Saturday for the most part we played well and made good tackles."

Along with the rest of the Tide secondary, Jones is more confident and aggressive this season.

After redshirting his first year on campus and watching from the sideline his second, Jones played in 10 of Bama's 11 games last season, starting in five. Aside from improved coverage, this season Jones has turned himself into one of Bama's surest tacklers. His eight stops led the Tide versus Tennessee, and after eight games the junior free safety is tied with Brooks Daniels for the season lead with 59. Jones has also contributed three sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

What's the reason for the startling transformation? "It just comes with playing experience and having confidence in what you're doing," he replied. "I trust the scheme. Last year was my first time playing, and I really didn't know how the game was going to be played.

"Now I know what's going to happen, which is freeing me up to where I can make plays."

For all but the most superior of athletes, it simply takes some time to adjust to the speed of big-time college football.

"Nothing can beat experience," Jones said. "I'm slowing down (mentally) so I can be confident in what I'm doing. I'm not rushing. I'm not panicking. I'm making plays."

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