Safety proving worth the wait

There are always exceptions, but as a rule most athletes require a couple of years to mature and adjust to the speed of big-time college football. For fourth-year free safety Charles Jones, the wait was sometimes frustrating. But now the hard work is finally paying off.

"Coming to college and having to be patient and wait your turn can be really hard," Jones acknowledged. "But sooner or later your turn will come. Everybody on this team was ‘the man' at his high school. In college you've got to keep on working and keeping with it."

A native of Waynesboro, Ga. (Burke County High School), Charles Jones recorded 10 tackles in the Crimson Tide's 28-14 win over Miss. State this past Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. In addition, Jones added one interception (30 yard return), two forced fumbles and two pass break-ups. For his effort, the league office recognized Jones as the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

Jones (#20) could very well be the most improved player on the entire Bama squad. (photo courtesy of Jess Nicholas)

"I'm gaining more and more confidence each week," the second-year starter said. "I'm playing consistently now. If you keep on being consistent, then sooner or later you'll make the plays."

Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione complimented his starting free safety. "Charley Jones has played well for us year. He's quietly having a nice season. Charley had a good interception Saturday."

New Safeties Coach Melvin Smith has played a key role in Jones' development. "He's playing with more confidence now," Smith noted Sunday. "Charley is a real conscientious guy. He listens and pays attention to detail. He's done some nice things in games, and he's trying to repeat them."

A 10-game starter this season, Jones is Alabama's third-leading tackler with 75 (50 solos) total stops. He has added one TFL (-10), two interceptions (30 return yards), three pass break-ups and one blocked kick. Last year, Jones had only 32 tackles in 10 games for the Crimson Tide. He has more than doubled that total this year.

"I have confidence in our defensive scheme and what everybody else is doing," Jones said in explaining his improvement. "Now when I go out on the field I already know what I've got to do. Now before a play I'm thinking about what everybody else has to do. I'm in a position to make the defense fit perfectly."

Jones started five games for Alabama last season. But too often he played tentatively, struggling so much to carry out his own responsibilities that he had no chance to provide coverage help to his teammates.

But 2002 has been different. Smith explained, "Charley sees more, which comes with experience. He's now playing like a guy that has been out there two years. Playing every down has really helped him. If you play free safety, you see more as you play. Right now he's seeing a lot."

Maturity---and countless hours in the film room---have transformed Jones into one of Bama's most consistent defenders. "Studying and watching film helps you know what's going to happen in certain situations," Jones explained. "You know (your opponent's) offensive tendencies--what's their favorite pass plays. I can recognize stuff. And if I see it, go get it now, then make the play."

Since arriving at Alabama weighing barely 160 pounds, Jones has worked to add strength and bulk.

Getting there "the fustest with the mostest" remains key to good defense, and experience provides Jones with an edge. "Anticipation gives you an extra step," he said. "It's knowing where you're supposed to be at the right time. Then it's just making the play, making the tackle."

Late in the fourth quarter last Saturday, Jones' ability to anticipate paid off. With less than two minutes to go in the contest, his second career interception slammed the door shut on the Bulldogs. Jones described the play. "We were in man-to-man, and my dude ran a corner route. At first I thought Hirchel (Bolden) was going to get it. Hirchel came off his man and jumped up in the air. The ball was overthrown, but the receiver tipped it.

"I was in the right place at the right time."

Like many college defensive backs, Jones played quarterback in high school. But the Waynesboro coaches also utilized him in the secondary, making his adjustment to college football somewhat easier. "Playing DB in high school is completely different from college," Jones said. "In high school all you've got to do is make sure your dude doesn't get past you. Then the offense might just throw it up, and you'll get a chance to catch it. But here if you ain't on your stuff, then before you know it's a touchdown or some kind of big play."

Jones' 10 tackles against Miss. State marked the second time this season he has posted a double-figure tackle game. Jones also added 10 stops and his first career interception in the Crimson Tide's 34-14 win at Tennessee on Oct. 26, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Vols.

Jones and the rest of the Tide defense are noticeably improved this year in tackling proficiency. "To have a great defense you've got to be able to tackle," Jones said. "We work the drills every day. An offense is going to make plays, but when they catch the ball or run the ball, tackle them. Almost all the big plays you give up, someone on defense is going to miss a tackle, which lets them go for big yardage."

Jones has recorded 50 of his 75 tackles this season in his last six games, averaging 8.33 stops per game during that span. He has eight or more tackles in five of those six games against Arkansas (8), Georgia (9), Ole Miss (9), Tennessee (10) and Miss. State (10). During Alabama's current four-game winning streak, the junior free safety is the Crimson Tide's second-leading tackler with 33 total stops.

"It's the way our defense is set up," Jones explained. "The way our defense is made, the safeties have to come up and fit in on the run. We have to play run when it's run and pass when it's pass."

Jones first arrived in Tuscaloosa weighing 160 pounds soaking wet. Since then he's added layers of muscle, which help immensely in tackling. "Back then I might have bench pressed 225 pounds," he said. "Now I'm up to 365. It's a long season. To prevent injuries you get stronger. To play in the SEC, you've got to lift weights. You've got to lift weights to keep up."

Though hardly the biggest (or strongest) defender on the field, Jones is still Bama's third-leading tackler. (Associated Press)

But even with the weight-room work Jones is still barely more than 180 pounds, which means he's often called on to tackle athletes significantly heavier than himself. "The only thing I'm concerned about is making the tackle," Jones said. "It's like Coach Smith says, ‘the only ugly tackle is a missed tackle.' So no matter what it takes to get him down, I'll do it."

Tough-guy linebackers Brooks Daniels and Cornelius Wortham pace the team in tackles with 85 and 77 respectively, but Jones and his 75 stops isn't far behind. "We kid around. I tell them I'm coming to get them. But I don't go into the game seeing how many tackles I can get. I'm just worried about doing my job. If that's making the tackle on this play, then make the tackle."

The most improved athlete from the most improved unit on the team, Jones epitomizes the progress made by the 2002 Tide secondary. But memories of last year's horrid performance against LSU still linger, and the Bengal Tigers are up next.

"We're a totally different team from last year," Jones said. "We're just going to make the plays this year and try to hold them. No scores whatsoever."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Barry Allen of Alabama Media Relations contributed to this report.

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