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January 26, 2012
Up and coming: Christion Jones
The roar could be heard from one side of the field to the other.
University of Alabama coach Nick Saban's session with reporters on Media Day before the Bowl Championship Series title game in New Orleans was interrupted for a moment by collective laughter from about 50 yards away on the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The laughter was loud enough to be heard in the nosebleed seats.
Holding court in the midst of dozens of teammates and reporters was Christion Jones. He joked. He did impressions of Alabama assistant coaches, of teammates, of Ray Charles. He even grabbed a microphone and began interviewing teammates as if he were a reporter, asking the most embarrassing questions.
"Let's hope we can channel some of Christion's energy in a positive direction," Saban said from across the Superdome.
Though his audience grew, there was never a moment when Jones didn't have every onlooker in his hand. It's not the sort of comfort level true freshmen on a national championship stage are supposed to have.
But not many freshmen are like Jones, either.
"He was pretty much the card here for his junior and senior year. He would say things I would say and stress my enunciations a little more," said Randy Cook, Jones' high school coach at Minor High School in Adamsville. "He knew what I would say before I said it. and sometimes said it for me. He's fantastic. He was always upbeat, always positive, always keeping guys in good spirits."
Jones didn't play with any stage fright, either.
He fielded four punts in the BCS National Championship Game, calmly securing three for fair catches and taking another 15 yards through the heart of LSU's punt coverage unit. It was the second-longest punt return against LSU all season, behind only the 49-yarder that Marquis Maze was injured on earlier in the game, prompting Jones' fill-in role.
Two months earlier, with Maze also ailing against No. 1-ranked LSU, Jones fielded his first punt of the season for a clean fair catch with the score tied at 6, surrounded by Tigers barking at him in hopes of causing a miscue.
They didn't know just how cool a freshman they were dealing with.
"He hadn't done it before all season. To go in in those circumstances and perform and do the job we asked him to do, that's what we talk to our guys about all the time - just do your job," UA receivers coach Mike Groh said a few days before the title game. "I was really proud of him at that moment."
For the season, Jones accounted for 114 all-purpose yards: 49 receiving, 33 on punt returns and 32 on a kickoff return. Forty-seven of those came in the championship game.
"What type of game it is? That doesn't really matter," Jones said. "It's football. It doesn't phase (me)."
This spring, Jones will compete among a group of receivers that includes Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and DeAndrew White as UA looks to replace its top two pass-catchers in the graduating Maze and Darius Hanks. A few others who have yet to play in a game for UA - youngsters Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr., along with junior college transfer Duron Carter - will also vie for a role.
"Just coming in, the game is faster than it is in high school, but you just have to adjust on the fly and be quick on your feet," Jones said. "That's what my high school coach always taught me - always be able to learn."
Cook placed Jones among the best players he has coached at the prep level.
"Chris was one of those guys who was so instinctive, it was as though he knew what his countermove was going to be before the other guy even made a decision on what he was going to do," Cook said. "One of the good things about Chris is his work ethic is so strong. Not only in the weight room, but agility, track work, endurance work, he's not one of those kids you have to sit and watch over. He'll do what he's supposed to do."
And the coach holds him in the highest regard when it comes to impressions, too.
"He can do a good Randy Cook," Cook said with a laugh. "No doubt."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org.