"I was kind of selfish," Jones said. "I was thinking about me, me, me. I was ranked the No. 1 safety in the nation, I was a pretty high recruit, but I wasn't mentally and physically ready to play on this level."
That was three years ago, and Jones isn't the same player – and more importantly, the same person – these days.
The transition started when he learned what it meant to be a part of that Georgia legacy, Jones said. Playing safety between the hedges wasn't just about putting your name in the record books. It was about living up to the standards of the players who came before you, and setting new standards for the ones who would come later.
As it turns out, those lessons have prepared him perfectly for the role he'll play this year.
Jones was redshirted his first year in Athens, unable to get on the field no matter how good the recruiting Web sites thought he was. The sudden realization that he had much to learn before he was capable of succeeding at Georgia came as a shock.
That's when former Bulldogs safety Tra Battle took Jones under his wing.
"I was down on myself when I first came in, redshirting and all, but Tra Battle lifted me up," Jones said. "He told me just keep grinding."
So Jones kept fighting, and Battle kept teaching.
Battle showed Jones what it took to get into shape, how to put on weight, how to handle the physical rigors of life in the SEC.
After Battle graduated, Kelin Johnson stepped into the leadership role. Johnson was vocal, energetic and excitable. He was a natural leader. He talked a lot and always had advice for the players around him, and Jones continued to soak in the knowledge.
Johnson is gone now, too, and Jones and fellow safety CJ Byrd find themselves walking in the footsteps of the leaders who came before them.
"It's tradition here," Byrd said. "You learn from the older guys. When I young, they helped me learn the defense. Now I've got to do the same with these guys because that's what I know."
Adapting to the role, however, wasn't quite so simple for Jones.
Jones had learned from Johnson, but it was a teaching technique he was uncomfortable replicating. Johnson's high-strung personality and talkative demeanor just wasn't part of Jones' nature. So he decided to take a different approach.
"Kelin was like a vocal leader, so he led by a lot of talking," Jones said. "I'm not a vocal leader. I try to let my action and let my play take over, and just let the guys vibe off me, so the other guys get that burn and play as one unit."
To do that, however, Jones needed to be a far different player than the one who arrived at Georgia as a selfish freshman.
Jones had seen how hard Battle and Johnson had worked. He knew what Byrd had accomplished. He learned from his own journey. When his opportunity came this year, he was ready.
"I've just seen a different kind of guy," cornerback Asher Allen said of Jones. "He's been working a lot harder. I think his work ethic has increased a whole lot, from the weight room to running to out there on the field. I could definitely see him becoming a leader on our team."
Jones leadership isn't a luxury for the Bulldogs this season. It's a necessity.
While Georgia will rely heavily on Jones to live up to the on-field standard set by his predecessors, his role of leader and teacher may be even more significant. The Bulldogs have only two experienced safeties to begin the season – Jones and Byrd. Redshirt freshman John Knox will be next in the rotation, but due to an injury to sophomore Quintin Banks and the suspension of junior Donavon Baldwin, Georgia will rely on a bevy of true freshmen to fill out the depth chart.
"I think there's a pretty good drop off between our top two and what's next," head coach Mark Richt said of the safeties. "Not so much ability, but that experience factor. To expect great safety play, after the first two guys, we're going to expect guys to get their feet wet."
Jones isn't concerned. He knows what a freshman who isn't ready to play looks like. It wasn't too long ago that he was one. The players behind him on the depth chart this year, however, are different. The tradition of great Georgia safeties is safe with them.
"The safeties that played behind (Johnson) or play behind me," Jones said, "they step up and fill the shoes of the last person."
Not each safety needs to be like his predecessor, Byrd said. But each safety needs to understand the tradition that comes with playing the position and pass it on in their own way.
So when Jones takes the field now armed for success or spends time teaching and motivating this year's all-important freshman class, he isn't trying to replace Battle or Johnson. He's just trying to make them proud.
"It has set a template because those guys were great at the safety position," Jones said. "Georgia has always been known for great safeties, so I don't want to let those guys down. I just want to show them that the legacy still lives."