C.J. Jones was on the field for one play – just one play – and the immediate response to his actions were horror followed by confusion mixed with a little bit of anger.
“No! No! No!” the fans on the hillside corner of Clemson’s Memorial Stadium were screaming as Jones burst through a crowd to pick up a loose punt rolling into the end zone.
“Why? Why? Why?” some of his own teammates were asking him as they ran off the field.
Even the viewers watching the marquee Georgia-Clemson opener at home listened to ESPN’s Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit wondering what in Frank Howard’s name was this No. 38 who was nowhere on the depth chart doing to threaten a 10-point Tigers lead with less than six minutes to go.
“That was some move back there,” Musburger said in a bewildered tone.
The confusion gradually morphed into appreciation and elation at what the senior walk-on from Lincoln County had actually done.
“He literally made one of the biggest plays of that game, if not the biggest,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of Jones’ improvisation. “It’s just his football IQ. He’s been around the game for awhile now and been a special teams guy for us. I think it was just great awareness. He saw the ball hit and he didn’t hear a whistle, so he wasn’t going to sit around and wait and went and made an instant decision and we’re really glad he did, for sure. Just great awareness and instincts on his part.”
Jones went from unknown goat to hero once the replays showed teammate Ben Boulware had been knocked into the ball, making it a live time bomb rolling to a stop in the middle of the end zone with Bulldogs diving at it.
“I heard the fans going ‘No! No! No!’ but I don’t think they realized until the instant replay that it actually hit him,” Jones said. “So at first I got that face like, ‘What are you doing? Why did you pick it up?’ But then it was like ‘Wow, what made you think of that? I don’t know if I would have picked it up.’ Then they started loving me. I think I got a concussion from all the slaps on the head I got this week.”
It was quite a moment for a walk-on to produce in a victory that may potentially launch a special season for the Tigers. It could have had a devastating effect if Jones hadn’t had the presence of mind to do the right thing.
How Jones got on that field in the first place is another story. He’d played four years from 2005-08 as a receiver and defensive back at Class A Lincoln County – the first three going by his full name Cardeiro Jones.
“People couldn’t really pronounce my name correctly – they couldn’t get the ‘ro’ at the end – so I just shortened it to C.J.,” he said.
Despite being on two state championship teams for Larry Campbell’s Red Devils, football wasn’t the reason Jones went to college. He chose Clemson to pursue a degree in graphic communications.
“Without a brain in this world today you’re pretty much nothing,” Jones said. “I was blessed enough to make the grades in high school to be able to get into Clemson.”
Once there, Jones made friends with some of the Tigers football players – Andre Ellington, Brandon Ford and Brandon Thomas. Before spring practice at the tail end of his freshman year in 2009, his new friends challenged him.
“We were all joking and they said, ‘You can’t play no football,’” Jones said. “I showed them my highlight tape from high school. They said, ‘I bet you won’t walk on.’ So I said I ain’t scared. The next day I was on the team. We all went in together to talk to Coach Swinney and they pretty much vouched for me. The first day (of spring practice) I caught a pick on a pass drill and Coach Swinney kept me from then.”
Jones is exactly the kind of player Swinney respects.
“What you want as a coach is just to see a guy who is committed to being his best, to maximizing his potential,” Swinney said. “That’s what he’s done. He’s gotten better and better every year just working his tail off. It’s so good to see a guy when he gets an opportunity he’s ready.”
Jones hoped for more than just a token jersey and scout team duty.
“I’m a walk-on who wanted to play,” he said. “I didn’t ever want to just be on the team. Work hard every day at my craft and learn my position and learn more positions. That’s what got me my chance.”
In three previous seasons he got in on 17 special teams snaps – a role he takes great pride in.
“It’s not all about offense and defense,” he said. “Special teams plays a big role. Everybody has to play those positions. Coach always told me if you play a big role in our special teams that means you have our trust and we trust you to put you on the field. Coach respects us all no matter if we’re a walk-on or a five-star recruit.”
Clemson trusted Jones to get his first taste of the field late against Georgia, and it proved to be serendipitous. He was following fundamentals like he was taught – hold your block until you get inside the 15 and let go when you hear the returner yell “Poison” to get away from the ball.
“But out of the corner of my eye I saw one of my teammates just running,” he said of Boulware. “I didn’t know what he was doing but my instinct was just trail him. I thought (the ball) hit him and thought ‘Oh no.’ I second-guessed myself that he didn’t hit it, but then I saw the Georgia player dive for it and I knew it hit him. The first thing that went through my mind was get the ball out of the end zone. We’re up 10. The worst thing that can happen is they tackle me in the end zone and get a safety, but I cannot let them get this touchdown. So instincts. I always was good with the ball in high school, so I just picked it up and started running. ... As long as I got back to the 1, I was happy.”
Back in Lincoln County, his mother opened her eyes long enough to see Jones get the ball back to the 7, allowing the Tigers to run three-and-a-half precious minutes off the clock.
“Run, baby, run!” Valerie Jones yelled at the TV while C.J.’s father just sat stunned with his mouth open.
Jones had 81 messages from friends and family on his phone when he got back to the locker room. He said the emotions were “mixed” from the mostly red-and-black faithful back in Lincolnton.
“They hated Clemson, but they had to respect how they lost,” he said. “They lost to a good team and I just happened to make one of the biggest plays to help them lose. So they was mad and happy at the same time.”
The TV commentators before and after a commercial were “marvelling at the play of this senior.”
“That was C.J. Jones. He’s a senior corner,” Musburger said. “That could be the play of the night.”
“How about the awareness of a senior, playing on special teams, C.J. Jones,” Herbstreit added. “He’s not playing tonight as a corner. He gets his chance on special teams. And just by having the awareness to pick up that ball, he may have saved Clemson a big turning point in this game.”
Jones was honored by the Tigers as the special teams player of the week.
“To make a play like that in the game against Georgia, that’s something he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life,” Swinney said.
Jones hopes to keep playing whatever part he has in the journey as the No. 3 Tigers try to fulfill the promise that their opening victory foretold. It continues Thursday night at N.C. State.
“Coach always says to expect the unexpected; to do the unthinkable,” he said. “Right now my mindset is even though we’re No. 3 we have to focus on each opportunity at hand. I’m blessed to be a part of this team. It’s a privilege to do this.
“I just thank God for the opportunity to be out there that one play.”
A lot of Clemson fans share the same thanks.