For the first time in a long time, fans of Kentucky football can feel confident in the team’s depth on both sides of the ball. Injuries happen, and coaches must keep the “next man up mentality” in order to instill confidence in the replacement and his teammates.
We’ve already seen the “next man up” once this season, after starting tackle Cole Mosier tore his ACL during an intrasquad scrimmage. There was little reason to panic, as between Landon Young, Kyle Meadows, and George Asafo-Adjei, there were plenty of serviceable options with comparable (or better) talent ready to shoulder more of a load at the tackle position. Whether or not they’ve shown it yet is another story, but the talent amongst that group is there.
On Wednesday, rumors emerged that All-SEC linebacker Jordan Jones could be facing an extended absence after injuring his shoulder in the win against EKU. This would be a case when the next next man up may have a harder time filling the void.
However, it looks like the rumors were false, according to KSR’s Matt Jones, who does add that Jones is very iffy to play this week:
Told by a good source that online rumors of Jordan Jones broken collarbone are false...only Bruise but status for Saturday is uncertain— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) September 13, 2017
The news is surprising, given that Jones returned to play in the game after earlier being helped off the field.
Jones was a godsend for the Kentucky defense last season, registering a team-leading 109 tackles (74 of which came in the solo variety). This puts him in pretty good company as far as Kentucky linebackers go, for only Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan, Avery Williamson, and Josh Forrest have made as many tackles from the position in a season since 2005. The common line between all of them? They all play in the NFL.
Losing Jones wouldn't just mean that Stoops is without an All-SEC 2nd Teamer. It would mean that Kentucky is losing the soul of its defense and an NFL-caliber athlete in a league made up of future NFL athletes.
Whether it is relying on his instincts as a tackler to stifle opponents’ running game or using his athleticism to drop back into pass coverage (Jones broke up four passes last year as a sophomore, the only Kentucky linebacker to officially do so), defensive coordinator Matt House needs Jones in order to fulfill the potential that he once saw in the unit.
When Georgia’s rushing attack of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel shredded the Cats for 212 yards last season, it was Jones who kept them from going full Forrest Gump because of his 10 tackles (3 for a loss).
When the Kentucky defense held off Lamar Jackson and the heavily favored Cardinals in the memorable 41-38 road victory, it was Jordan Jones who was able to slow down the Heisman winner’s offense just enough for the offense to keep up. He led the Cats with 10 tackles in that game.
Jones may not ever be an NFL superstar because of his size, but he is a superstar in the SEC because he wants it more than the man across from him. He plays harder than everyone else, flies down the field like his helmet is on fire, and plays with a tenacity that high school coaches everywhere try to instill in their players.
That passion of his may take him too far, as we’ve learned this past weekend, but it’s what makes him a great player and an irreplaceable piece to Kentucky’s puzzle. Exchanging a damaged heart for a new one may every now and then work with flying colors. More often than not, it’s only a matter of time until problems arise and the transplant starts to show its faults.
Now it’s not to say that Eli Brown, the next man up, couldn't do his job and keep the defense afloat. The sophomore was a highly touted recruit in his own right and someone the staff has high expectations for. However, there is not enough tape on Brown to be confident in him being able to do the little things that Jones does so well. His 26 career tackles are less of an indictment on Brown’s game than it is his inexperience.
If Brown can fly around the field, attack the running lanes, and be nimble enough to shadow tight ends in the middle of the field even 80% as well as Jones, then the Cats are in good shape. But until we see it, it'll take all of Brown, along with Courtney Love and Denzel Ware upping their games that much more for the Cats to successfully sustain the potential loss of their star linebacker. It is just a lot to ask for.
I want to believe that rumors are much ado about nothing, but when House refused to address whether or not Jones participated in practice today, optimism starts to wane that Jones will play this week. Even if he’s out for just a game or two, the Cats need all hands on deck to beat South Carolina and Florida in the next couple weeks. Losing Jones could easily be the difference in both contests.