Saturday, August 31, 2013
Jones dazzles as Tide roll over the Hokies
By Alex Scarborough
Christion Jones' big-play ability was on display Saturday, as the junior wide receiver scored touchdowns on a kick return, punt return and reception in Bama's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech.
ATLANTA -- Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones is the kind of player that drives his coaches nuts. He's got all the tools to ruin a defense and dominate in the return game, yet there are times where he tries to do too much. One play he'll show the type of vision and lane recognition that brings to mind the game's most savvy tailbacks; he'll shuffle his feet, wait for a sliver of daylight and break through as if salvation lay beyond its dazzling glow. Then on the very next play he'll listen to the devil on his shoulder and force what isn't there, running to darkness toward his own end zone in a vain attempt to make his own way.
It's the problem with dynamic athletes like Jones: they refuse to believe a touchdown isn't possible. It's what makes them great, but it's also what makes them dangerous. They sometimes believe too much.
But faith is what made Jones the star of the Crimson Tide's 35-10 victory over Virginia Tech in Saturday night's season opener. The 5-foot-11 junior looked at Virginia Tech's historically stifling special teams and called its bluff, returning a punt and a kickoff for a pair of spectacular touchdowns, robbing the enthusiastic yet overmatched Hokies of momentum with each score. For good measure, he added a 38-yard touchdown reception for the game's final score as No. 1 Alabama began its title defense.
What Jones accomplished was nothing short of historic. Alabama hadn't had a player score twice on returns in the same game since 1944. Bill Battle, the school's athletic director and former player under legendary coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant, marveled at the performance, guessing that he was 3 years old the last time it happened.
"I'd say he's special," he said on the sidelines.
Not he or anyone else could recall if an Alabama player had ever scored on a punt return, a kick return and a reception. There were already calls for a Heisman Trophy campaign thanks to Jones' 256 total yards and three scores.
Jones, though, wouldn't bite that bronze hook. It was just Week 1, he told reporters after the game, and he wouldn't be fooled into that kind of narcissism, no matter how superhuman his performance seemed. It was clear by his 1,000-watt smile that he enjoyed the night, but he wouldn't go overboard. Coaches' orders dictated otherwise, even if it was the best game of his college career.
"It's every kid's dream to come in and do things like that, but you know I'm going to celebrate it right now and we've got a 24-hour rule," he said. "We're going to put this game aside come tomorrow morning and focus on Week 2."
The clock hadn't hit midnight, though, and teammates couldn't help but marvel at what their speedy wideout was able to do on offense and special teams. Veteran right guard Anthony Steen came up to Jones after the second touchdown and said if he kept that up, "He'd be playing pro one day."
Defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan was thankful he didn't have to try tackling Jones during practice, telling reporters that "From what I've seen, it seems pretty hard."
"He's an athletic player, one of the most athletic players on the team," sophomore defensive back Landon Collins added. "He showed that out there today."
It wasn't always so for Jones. Last season he surrendered punt return duties at multiple points, fumbling the ball and encouraging the wrath of his coach for his propensity to take the ball in reverse, rather than settling for positive yards. He focused on being more patient during the offseason and trusting his blocks. The hard work paid off Saturday.
"People take for granted that just because a guy has a lot of skill, that it doesn't take experience to be a good returner," UA coach Nick Saban said. "I think it does. I think just the judgment of when to take the shot, catch the ball, run with it, when to make a fair catch.
"Last year was Christion's first time doing this stuff. He had some opportunities last year, but he learned a lot from it."
Jones flashed brilliance in the season-opening game, but he showed his Achilles heel as well. On his third punt return he looked like the Chirstion Jones of old, reversing field twice before being taken to the ground by the Hokies for a 6-yard loss. The offense went three-and-out and Jones called for a fair catch his next time out.
It would prove to be a teaching moment, one the coaching staff will surely focus on when they review the film in the days to come. Scoring three times was spectacular, but an ill-advised return will stand out as something to build on.
For as good as Jones looked, he wasn't perfect. Neither were the Tide. Both were volatile; brilliant at times and bewildering at others. The offensive line was underwhelming and the passing game never took off. Alabama's Heisman Trophy frontrunners -- quarterback AJ McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon -- didn't play up to their high standards. Instead, Jones took the mantle of the game's best.
With Texas A&M looming on the horizon, Alabama must improve. Jones will continue to provide the spark on special teams, but it's difficult to imagine many more nights like the one he turned in Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
"I don't think there's anybody in our locker room that's satisfied with the way they played," Saban said. "They certainly appreciate the fact we were able to win against a very good team that we have a lot of respect for their program and players, the way they played tonight.
"But I think everybody realizes that we need to improve. I think when you play good opponents like this, it makes your players realize where they are, what they need to be committed to, to play to the standard that it's going to take to beat good teams in our league. I think we learned that tonight."