"I believe if I just go down there and work hard, listen to them and be willing to learn and be coachable, the sky is the limit for what I can do. Obviously, my goal is to get to the next level. I believe I can do that there."
The 2012 recruiting class has turned out be a particularly special one for the Alabama Crimson Tide, deep with stars and contributors, some of whom have already made their way to the next level. Cyrus Jones was set to be part of someone’s 2012 class, a four-star athlete out of Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland and the third-ranked player in a state not necessarily known as a hotbed of football talent. Nominally a wide receiver but also seeing time as a cornerback and a returner, Jones would accrue 2,365 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns in his senior season at Gilman, while also notching five interceptions on the defensive side of the ball. That was good enough for Jones to be named 2011 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year and garner consensus prep All-American status, as well as the #43 spot in 247’s composite recruiting rankings for 2012 — two spots behind Reggie Ragland and two spots ahead of some guy named Amari Cooper.
Jones’ efforts would also result in an invitation to participate in the 2012 UA All-Star Game, where he was set to announce his decision between Alabama, Ohio State, and a slew of Mid-Atlantic institutions. Jones would provide a glimpse of his future exploits in the game with a pick-six of current BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum, and during the broadcast would officially commit to the Crimson Tide. Amongst tales of the splendor to be found at Coach Saban’s lake house — including a legendary breakfast spread of pancakes, waffles, bacon, AND sausage — Jones offered the above quote, one that perfectly sums up The Process and the type of athlete best suited for it. It would serve to be particularly prophetic words for Jones as well, as he perhaps embodies what The Process is meant to achieve more than any other senior on this team.
You see, “athlete” is typically a label used in recruiting circles to designate a guy with the physical tools to play almost any skill position but without the characteristics that scream “wide receiver!” or “running back!” or “safety!”. That was certainly an apt description of the 5’10”, 195 pounder with the 37 inch vertical and sub-4.5 40, who had the speed of an elite receiver but perhaps not the hands, and the agility of a great cornerback but perhaps not the height, etc. and so on. During his freshman season in 2012 the Crimson Tide coaching staff started Jones out as a receiver; he would see time in 11 games, catching four passes for 51 yards and carrying twice for four yards. In yet another instance of foreshadowing, however, his most significant contributions would come in the return game, as Jones would end up leading the Tide in kickoff returns and yardage. His biggest performance was against Georgia in the classic 2012 SEC Championship Game, returning four kickoffs for 89 yards in a contest where every last yard mattered.
Heading into the 2013 season the national champions had a gaping void at cornerback, as superstar Dee Milliner had departed early for the NFL, leaving a glut of shaky options in his wake. They also had a logjam at receiver, as Jones looked to be lost in the shuffle with Cooper, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, and Kevin Norwood all more established at the position. The solution was somewhat obvious, and Jones was moved to cornerback in the offseason. To say that first season as a defender was a bit rough would be a tremendous understatement, as Jones struggled in his limited opportunities as part of a secondary that proved to be the Achilles heel for that team. It wasn’t all bad, however — in one of his eleven appearances that season Jones would enter for the injured Deion Belue and pick off none other than Jonathan Paul Manziel himself, denying the Aggies a touchdown in what turned out to be seven point victory and sweet, sweet revenge for the Tide. Strangely, Jones would be completely supplanted by Christion Jones as the Tide’s primary returner, perhaps due to the latter’s unbelievable performance against Virginia Tech to start the year.
2014 would prove to be the coming out party for Jones, as amid much trepidation he entered the season as a starting cornerback across from Bradley Sylve. Sylve would quickly be replaced by Eddie Jackson, but Jones started every game that year, blossoming into a shutdown corner and garnering a second team All-SEC nod from the Associated Press for his efforts. After being challenged early and often, the Tide’s opponents quickly realized the green and gimpy Jackson was a far easier nut to crack, and by the SEC Championship Game Jones was rarely being targeted. He would receive Defensive Player of the Week honors from the coaching staff on three occasions during the year, and capped the season with four pass break-ups and an interception against former suitor Ohio State, the latter returned for 32 yards to set up a Tide touchdown. He received a few opportunities as a return man, including a then career-long 70 yard punt return against Florida Atlantic, but was still largely an afterthought behind Christion Jones in that regard.
Entering his senior season, Jones was firmly entrenched as a starting corner with an accompanying preseason All-SEC nod, but was also installed as the primary punt returner after the departure of Christion Jones. Jones continued his outstanding play on defense, but for the first time he was not alone in his efforts, as the influx of some preternaturally talented freshmen and the arrival of Coach Mel Tucker punched the Tide’s secondary play up to 2011-2012 levels. The former development resulted in a ridiculously low number of targets for the senior, as teams often opted for testing the mettle of Marlon Humphrey or Minkah Fitzpatrick in lieu of trying to beat Jones. As a result, Jones infrequently appeared on the defensive stat sheet, which for a cornerback is actually a good thing — the highest compliment you can receive is the opponent acknowledging they have no idea what to do with you.
Instead, any tangible impact for Jones would have to come from the return game, and there he exceeded any reasonable expectation of performance. As of this writing Jones sits 18th in the country averaging over 12 yards per punt return, and leads the country both in total returns and return touchdowns. That last bit provided a tremendous amount of excitement down the stretch, as weeks and weeks of Jones nearly breaking a big one finally gave way to paydirt. The first of Jones’ three return touchdowns on the season came against Mississippi State, a 69-yarder that opened the floodgates on the way to a 31-6 Tide victory. Jones’ strong play as a cornerback and success as a returner ensured he would be remembered fondly by the Alabama fanbase, but his efforts in the next game would make him a Tide legend.
On Senior Day, his last home game as a Crimson Tide player, Jones would give a performance for the ages against Charleston Southern. First, he would notch his second return touchdown in as many games, closing the first quarter with this beauty:
Next, he would set an Alabama record by returning another punt for a touchdown, the first time that’s happened the history of Crimson Tide football. As impressive as the first two touchdowns were, this over-the-shoulder grab off a funny hop was perhaps the best play Jones has ever made in a crimson jersey:
Well, it would have been, except a few moments later Jones reminded everyone that he’s one of the best defenders on the field as well, pulling off one of the better individual efforts you’ve ever seen:
That’s incredibly hard to do, and it’s a play that would show up in highlight reels for decades, Teague-style, if not for the relative inferiority of the opponent and the largely inconsequential nature of the contest. Five more yards and Jones would have had his third return touchdown in all of 12 minutes, which is probably not something that’s happened very often at this level of football.
Jones’ career in crimson is not done just yet, of course — a bowl game and a shot at the national championship game remain — but the next level is approaching rapidly. Despite his outstanding play, Jones is not highly regarded by the draftniks at this point, graded well outside the top-10 cornerbacks and projected as a third-day pick. He was left off the All-SEC and All-American teams at both cornerback and returner; the latter is understandable given the presence of Evan Berry and Christian Kirk, but the former is unconscionable, as he was snubbed in favor of more-targeted players with flashier stats. Still, Jones was invited to the Senior Bowl, and including pre-draft workouts has up to five opportunities to remind the NFL of what he brings to the table.
Regardless of what the professional ranks may have to offer him, Jones was among 23 Tide players to receive their degrees last Saturday, and as such has converted his considerable athletic gifts into a bright future for himself. He arrived at the Capstone as an eager recruit, ready to work hard, listen, and be coached by the finest staff in all of college football, and that attitude allowed him to weather a position change and the adversity that came with it to become a team leader and one of the best players in the conference, if not the country. And for that, Cyrus Jones, we salute you.