The first thing people involved in the South Carolina football program said about Ernest Jones centered around something those outside the program couldn’t see.
To a degree, that makes sense with a player who missed the spring with a back injury and spent most of his first year on campus on track to redshirt. But it might also speak to something coming down the line.
“He’s smart,” starting middle linebacker T.J. Brunson said. “That was the first thing I noticed. He’ll call something and see something. Sometimes he’ll beat the running back or whoever the ball carrier is to the spot.”
His head coach, Will Muschamp, echoed the sentiment.
“He’s really intelligent,” Muschamp said. “He’s really smart. That’s one of the reasons we really liked him in the recruiting process … able to make the calls in our defense.”
But all that was something fans mostly had to wait to see.
The fracture in Jones’ back had him out all spring. He got into the season opener late in a blowout, and then didn’t play in the next eight games.
But then he got some snaps against Chattanooga. Then with the team’s avalanche of injuries, he played against Clemson and Akron. By the bowl game, he was facing the choice of burning his redshirt, and ended up playing seven snaps on defense plus special teams.
Now the 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker goes into the offseason unencumbered by injury.
“He’s a tough kid, for sure,” Brunson said. “I like watching him play, he’s going to be really good. I’m not sure about the whole back injury story, but I’m sure that’s something that took a lot for him to overcome and to come out here and play and make plays at practice and come in a game and make plays, that’s huge for us. I know he’s excited to finally get more comfortable with working out and stuff this offseason.”
For the season, he posted 16 tackles, a pair of quarterback hurries and forced a fumble.
The team will return a group of linebackers that is experienced, but also needs to produce more in 2019. Only Bryson Allen-Williams projects to be gone, and he was mostly a Buck defensive end.
Brunson is back for a third year starting and Sherrod Greene is back for a second, but at times, the starting pair had struggles and was overworked. Veteran Eldridrige Thompson is waiting on a medical sixth season after a shoulder injury ended his 2018 early.
Beyond them, it’s Jones, others who got spot duty and the freshmen. Damani Staley had 31 tackles as an often-used backup, but also had some struggles. Rosendo Louis projected as a rotation player at the start of the season, but ended up playing sparingly through the middle of the season, bouncing between positions and then getting hurt.
Then there’s the freshmen, the smaller Jahmar Brown and a bigger option in Derek Boykins.
With all those bodies, USC will have to sort out a rotation that probably needs more production and more depth to shore up a defense hammered by injuries.
Muschamp spoke highly of what the team saw from Jones in the meeting room, how he took to understanding South Carolina’s defensive concepts and how he progressed through the season.
But Jones is still a linebacker, and for as much as one can talk about his understanding, there is the other part of his game.
“He is also a guy who is really heavy handed,” Brunson said. “I remember seeing, we were doing a power foot and hands drill working with running backs, and just watching him punch and knock someone’s head back and jar somebody as a freshman, that’s pretty good.”