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Ernest Jones Starring for South Carolina

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Saturday was a statement performance for Ernest Jones and his South Carolina Gamecocks.

It felt good, it felt good. From Waycross, where a lot of people are Georgia fans, they only tolerate South Carolina because I'm there.
~Ernest Jones

South Carolina's win over Georgia last weekend featured a standout performance from linebacker Ernest Jones. The rising star defender recorded a team-high 12 total tackles and three pass deflections, continuing his play as one of the leaders of a formidable defense, a unit that held the Bulldogs to their second-lowest home point total of the Kirby Smart era. It was a throwback performance from the Gamecocks, winning in Athens for the first time since 2011. It was also a retro moment for Jones, taking him back to when pen first met paper.    

A Waycross, Georgia-native, Jones is from the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp deep along the Peach State's southern border. It's a place, one the late actor Burt Reynolds long claimed to have been born in, where there is a shared pride amongst people. Home to folk singer Graham Parsons and the start of "Bubba Burger", traditions, in Waycross, are tangible. A passionate football community that rallies behind the famed Ware County Gators, a program that plays in one of the most unique venues in all of Georgia high school football, many fans of the green-and-gold also root for the red-and-black.     

Though 225 miles from Athens, Waycross has long been, Friday to Saturday, both a Gator and a Bulldog town. Jones, a popular player during his high school career and an accomplished native son, is adding a new team into the fold. 

"It felt good, it felt good," Jones nodded of his latest victory. "From Waycross, where a lot of people are Georgia fans, they only tolerate South Carolina because I'm there."

Saturday was a statement performance for Jones and his Gamecocks. After a 1-3 start, South Carolina has responded with consecutive SEC wins over Kentucky and Georgia. Those recent successes have shifted the perception surrounding head coach Will Muschamp in a span of mere weeks. Not only did the Gamecocks just impact the College Football Playoff race with their efforts, they redefined their own reality. Facing one of the nation's premier teams, not to mention rising adversity, this is a team that found itself by finding a way.    

The triumph between the hedges was, from the outside-looking-in, at least, an unexpected one. It completely changes the dynamic of South Carolina's season moving forward. Not only are the Gamecocks better positioned for potential bowl eligibility, they, welcoming Florida to Columbia and Williams-Brice Stadium this weekend, are suddenly a very real contender to win the SEC East. What happened in Athens was downright transformative.

South Carolina's defense led the charge at Georgia. From Israel Mukuamu's three interceptions to Javon Kinlaw's disruption at the point of attack to Jones unrelentingly roaming the middle of the field, the Gamecocks held the Bulldogs to just 5.7 yards per pass, 4.0 yards per rush and forced four turnovers. Following a D'Andre Swift touchdown run early in the second quarter, South Carolina held Georgia to just one score the remainder of the game, two overtime periods included. While never doubting the offense, Jones took it upon himself to, from his position, lead the way. 

"We just went out there and I told the guys, I was like 'it's on us, just put this game on our backs. You'll have time to rest after the game, but for right now, everything goes into defense and making sure we are able to stop them'," Jones shared.

Part of what made South Carolina's defensive showing so impressive was who it came against. The Gamecocks forced Jake Fromm, one of top quarterbacks in the country and a signal caller who finished fifth nationally in passer rating a year ago, into arguably the worst game of his entire career with three interceptions. South Carolina, sacking Fromm three times, also held its own against the most-productive rushing attack in the SEC and won consistently against perhaps the most dominant offensive line in the game today.  

"To beat those guys, you have to get the ball off of Fromm. You can't sit back there and let him just throw the ball into coverages, you have to get pressure on him," Jones explained. "I think the defensive line did a great job of staying in his space and they have been doing that for weeks now. It's definitely great to reward them on the back-end with some interceptions."

The end result, ahead of an upcoming showdown with Florida, was a season-shaping win. After a bit of a stumble out of the gate, South Carolina is coming.

"It's definitely a confidence boost. We are definitely taking the confidence into this next game. We never once doubted our abilities at the beginning of this season," Jones added. "We stayed humble, we stayed down and we were due for a big win. It came in Athens and that was just a great place. We're moving on to Florida and still have the East within our grasp."

South Carolina, make no mistake about it, isn't yet content.

At 3-3, the Gamecocks will figure into the stretch run of the SEC. Saturday's contest with Florida has direct conference championship game implications. Beyond that, South Carolina will continue to help influence the national narrative. The Gamecocks, having already defeated Georgia, will host host two of college football's 12 remaining unbeaten teams in Appalachian State and Clemson. One way or another, South Carolina will have a hand in both league and national developments.

An outlook ready for those opportunities has been framed and developed. With Jones settling into a leadership role, he is helping to establish a new status quo.

"Don't let this victory, here, get into the minds of everyone, just focus on this victory and think everything is done and all. No, I think the mindset here is now, 'OK, that one is done. It felt good. Let's go get another one even better'," Jones detailed, reflecting and looking ahead to Florida and beyond. "It's in our home stadium, you're one step closer to clinching the east and doing what you need to do, so why not? Let's go get another one so we can feel even better."

This rise, for Jones, has been both legacy and lesson alike. His stock, currently tied for second in the SEC in total tackles with 50, is at an all-time high. Jones is a legitimate candidate for All-SEC honors later in the year and was recently named to the SouthernPigskin.com Mid-Season all-conference team. A positional prototype in many respects, Jones is rangy and athletic, aware and instinctive. He is a tone-setter on and off the field for South Carolina. All that Jones does is starting to be recognized nationally.

While many are now seeing where Jones is, few saw, going back to the start of his college career, where he was. There were injuries and inconsistency and, ultimately, doubt for the talented linebacker; in terms of expectations for the future, there was even uncertainty. Before production, for Jones, came patience. After the signature showing of his career to date, there is now perspective.

Jones walked off the field at Georgia triumphant and, perhaps more importantly, thankful.

"It's been amazing," he smiled. "When I came in, I didn't get to do much because of the injuries to my back and what-not and I felt down. I wanted to give up and just not keep going, but I had a wonderful support system. My teammates, my coaches, they believed in me and they knew the ability that I had. I just had to keep working. And to be where I am now, it feels wonderful. I'm definitely proud of myself and all of this would not be possible without God. It's a great spot right now."

More than just one of the elite linebackers in the SEC and an emerging NFL prospect, Jones is a great story of perseverance. His mold is a critical part of South Carolina's make-up. Furthermore, all that Jones has been through and accomplished stands as an example for younger student-athletes. He has taken a deliberate path to prominence.

"The coaches and the players, they have definitely helped me improve. They made me go back to believing in myself and believing in my abilities because I kind of got down on myself when I first got here due to not playing and stuff. So they just helped me know that you can play, that you're able to compete with the top guys and that you can do it," Jones reflected. "I feel like my game has improved and it's getting better every game. I'm getting more comfortable managing the game, so I believe I've been improving in a position direction." 

Jones, powerfully, has a story to tell. He, after this past weekend, has bragging rights to go along with it. Last Saturday was serendipitous for the south Georgia star. Among others, Jones, having worked hard for his chance, helped pace South Carolina to a win over his home state team. It was a truly meaningful moment for Jones, one years in the making.

All that Jones did in the Gamecocks' win over Georgia, and all that he is doing, will continue to be talked about for some time. Back home, however, Jones won't have to say a thing.

"My family is huge 'Dawg fans and I told them, when I get my opportunity to play them 'Dawgs, I'll do everything I can to put it on them. It definitely feels good to be able to beat them," Jones smiled. "For once, I don't have to hear about those 'Dawgs."

The latest in a long line of college football stars from his hometown, Jones takes a little bit of south Georgia with him everywhere he goes. In some ways, Columbia is college and a continuation all the same. Even though Jones' track has taken him across state lines, there still are steps in the mud and, after last weekend, the red clay.

With parts of his career having already come full-circle, the spotlight, for Jones, is fitting.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports