South Carolina football: Ernest Jones playing at All-SEC level

A defender on the South Carolina football team is playing at an all-conference level.

Coming into the year, little was heard of junior linebacker Ernest Jones, who mans the middle of the South Carolina defense. Most preseason fanfare was given to Alabama’s Dylan Moses, Georgia’s Monty Rice, and Tennessee’s Henry To’o To’o in regards to the linebacker position.

But through three weeks, only Jones sits inside the top 10 SEC players in tackles, as he’s tallied 29 takedowns, a sack, and a fumble recovery. His 16 solo tackles rank eight-most in the conference, and he’s got the South Carolina defense playing stout.

The Gamecocks currently boast the SEC’s third-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed, and they rank among the conference’s top five performers in pass defense, run defense, total defense, and scoring. That’s a far cry from the unit that ranked near the bottom of the league in most major categories a year ago.

What’s more impressive is that two of those contests came against Florida and Tennessee, two of the better offensive units in the SEC. And the Gamecocks are coming off of their best outing, surrendering just 249 yards to Vanderbilt.

Jones is a major reason for the defense’s improvement. He’s the leader of the group, in charge of getting the unit aligned and shouting out play calls. He’s always around the ball, having totaled double-digit takedowns in two of the Gamecocks’ three contests. He capped it off with a 13-tackle performance last week. Three of those takedowns went for a loss, including a huge goal line stop on a Vanderbilt fourth down conversion attempt early in the game.

Last year, Jones led the Gamecocks in tackles with 97, which was 20 more than his next closest teammate. This year looks like it’s heading in the same direction, as he leads the group by 11 stops. He’s also pacing the team in tackles for loss, and ranks second in sacks.

Jones is a talented player that chose to play for Will Muschamp over an offer from Duke. His role has grown with each year, after being inserted into the lineup as a true freshman.

“Ernest is a really good football player,” his head coach said during last week’s postgame conference. “He has great energy, great juice, is really smart and gets us in all of our fronts and everything we do. We put a lot on him in order for us to function defensively. I think he’s played well in the first three ball games. We are going to have a very high standard on him.”

The Georgia native has a knack for making the big, referenced by his four career takeaways and two forced fumbles. He should be even more heavily involved in the game plan this week as the Gamecocks take on an Auburn team that is going to try to establish the run early and dominate the line of scrimmage.

He’ll likely be tasked with containing dual-threat quarterback Bo Nix, and could be used in a “spy” role throughout the matchup. Nix ranks third amongst SEC signal callers in rushing, and he found the endzone for the first time last week.

Jones will also have to drop back in coverage to defend Tank Bigsby, a dangerous freshman running back that’s leading the SEC in yards from scrimmage (161 yds/game).

South Carolina will need Jones to continue his All-SEC play when the Tigers come to town on Saturday if they want to slow down a powerful rushing attack. The matchup is set for noon, and the Gamecocks will try to take down Auburn for the first time since joining the conference.

Next: Gamecocks are home 'dogs vs. Auburn