I’ve never published a post about a special teams prospect. Alabma senior Christion Jones is my first.
I have written two spotlights dedicated to players with special teams prowess out of the nearly 900 posts on this blog, but I never published them. The prospects were former Tulsa (now Texans) star Damaris Johnson and Georgia State’s (now Kansas City rookie) Albert Wilson. I never got around to publishing Johnson’s highlights in the return game and by the time I rediscovered the piece sitting in my drafts folder, Johnson has done more as a receiver this year than he has as a return specialist. I always saw Wilson as a talented receiver with special teams as a possible gateway for him making a squad, but the pass catching as the way he’d stick.
Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones will be the third such spotlight, but the first one to see the light of day. While I haven’t seen enough from Jones to speak to his prospects as an NFL wide receiver, one game is enough to say that the Alabama senior has the skills to earn a spot as a return specialist in the NFL. Here are four returns illustrating why Jones could earn a roster spot mostly for his special teams play.
Jones scores on his first return opportunity of the day against Virginia Tech, a school known or its special teams units. The punt is a line drive that backs Jones to the numbers of the left flat and he makes the catch at the 29 with two Hokie defenders ahead of Alabama’s first line of protection for the ballcarrier. One is at the numbers 10 yards away and another 15 yards from Jones in the middle of the field. Jones earns a good wall on this play, but he also does his fair share of setting up his blockers throughout the return.
Note the retreat of two steps to begin the run so he can position his path inside the left hash. I’m impressed by sharpness of the up-field cut at the hash to avoid the initial pursuit and work inside a block at the 30. Jones’ pacing, acceleration and work to set up blocks continues throughout the length of the run. After working past a wall of three blockers, he executes a fine press and cut to stay behind his teammates at the Virginia Tech 24 before veering further inside at the 14 to score.
There are return specialists that can get the job done with more dramatic cutbacks, but most that are successful in the pros have a strong feel for press and cuts that maintain a fast pace with a down-hill path at all time. Here’s a 96-yard kick return for a touchdown with 3:39 in the half where Jones demonstrates additional moves in his ball-carrying repertoire.
Jones fields the fly ball at the numbers of the left flat of the Alabama six, dips inside three defenders veering to the flat from the middle of the field. Once again, good choice by Jones to secure the ball to his sideline arm. The stutter move is about as much of an alteration in pace that you’ll want to see from a return specialist and Jones makes the most of the move, baiting the inside pursuit’s angle at the 23 .
Where Jones is different from the herd of college return specialists who are often small and lightning quick is his power and feel for earning yards after contact. On this return, a defender from over the top hits Jones and the ballcarrier responds with good stiff arm to buy room to dip outside two blockers to the 35. This comfort with physicality while playing at a fast pace is something I noted about Odell Beckham within the context of his special teams play last year. Once Jones reaches the VaTech 40, the acceleration takes care of the rest on his excellent return.
Here are two more punt returns worth noting for Jones’ second effort. The first also features an opportunity to field that ball on the first bounce, often a tricky feat to accomplish.
Once again, the power for a return specialist is notable. Joshua Cribbs is a great example of a return specialist with power and speed. I’m not putting Jones in that class of performer, because I haven’t watched enough of Jones’ returns to determine if he can be that good. However, is comfort level with bodies flying to execute run backs with agility, aggressiveness, and feel for his blocking are all promising.
The next return also ends with good second effort after contact. Note the beginning where he works up field fast enough to field the ball on the fly and still have the presence of mind to press the defense and cut inside the first block at the 40.
Even if Jones never develops into a capable NFL receiver, he could earn a living in the pros if does this kind of work for a team. Kassim Osgood rarely touches the ball as a receiver or return specialist, but he’s a Pro Bowl talent at covering kicks. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones makes a club on the basis of his return skills alone.
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