Sometimes it’s all about making a play when the opportunity presents itself.
That’s what Jonathan Jones has made a habit of doing as Auburn’s new ball-hawking cornerback.
A first-time starter as a junior, Jones leads the Tigers with five interceptions, which ranks second in the SEC and tied for third nationally. All of his picks have come in three of the last five games — including two apiece in back-to-back contests.
“The thing about Jonathan is he’s been playing so consistent for us that he keeps making those plays,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “Even sometimes when you don’t see the flashy plays, he’s really making some important plays for us in other areas.”
But the biggest positive for Auburn’s coaches is how opportunistic Jones has been, especially when it comes to his timing of his interceptions.
Four of his picks have come in the end zone, effectively halting potential touchdown-scoring plays by the opposition — including both of his interceptions against South Carolina.
“He made two great plays on the ball. I thought he got a bad call on one of the interferences,” Johnson said. “The ball was thrown out of bounds, it was uncatchable, and he had good coverage on it.”
With No. 4 Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC) traveling to play pass-happy senior quarterback Bo Wallace and No. 7 Ole Miss (7-1, 4-1), the Tigers will undoubtedly hope Jones’ recent run of timely turnovers continues against one of the SEC’s most consistent passers.
"He's a veteran guy,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think he's protected the football better, he's made good decisions."
Despite throwing three interceptions in the season opener, Wallace has seemingly corrected his mistake-prone ways after combining on 27 interceptions in his first two seasons as Ole Miss’ starter. Wallace has just one interception — which came last week versus LSU — in the Rebels’ last four games after throwing six in the first four.
Jones and the rest of Auburn’s secondary will be trying to reverse that trend Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN).
On his first pick last week, Jones allowed South Carolina receiver Shaq Roland to get over the top of him slightly, but managed to maintain inside position and when Dylan Thompson’s intended go-ahead touchdown pass came up a little short. Jones was able to recover enough to make a play on the ball, diving for the end-zone interception.
“I was taking away inside leverage,” Jones said this week, “and it forced him outside and Gabe (Wright) was able to get pressure and make him throw it short so I was able to step inside and make a play on it.”
His defensive coordinator couldn’t help but rave about his play Sunday.
“Those were big plays, the one in the end zone particularly, because right at the onsides kick we lost two possessions … and the defense goes right back out there and he steps up and makes a big play,” Johnson said. “You gotta really be proud of him.”
It all started in Auburn’s first road game Sept. 18 at Kansas State.
Jones’ interception of a tipped pass from Wildcats’ quarterback Jake Waters — that senior wide receiver Tyler Lockett bobbled — stopped a 74-yard scoring drive that was aided by a pass interference penalty on Jones that moved the Kansas State to the Auburn 2-yard-line.
It was that game where Jones first realized he just needed to let the game come to him, especially after several calls went against him.
“I take it back to the Kansas State game where I wasn’t really making a play on the ball, wasn’t really turning my head around and I’ve done it several times in practice,” Jones said. “Coach told me just settle down and do what I’ve seen you do plenty of times. I began to just, become second nature to calm down and make plays.”
This season has been especially rewarding for Jones, who struggled through injuries last season, including missing the first four games after breaking his ankle late in the preseason when he slipped on a wet step.
“Yeah, he had some injuries last year and fought through some,” Malzahn said. “He’s a guy that you look at his size and early in (the) year people are going to go after him and all that. I think he’s starting to earn a lot of people’s respect.”