In December, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp gave Ernest Jones the choice of playing in the Belk Bowl or sitting out. It wasn’t really a choice.
“I don’t think it was very difficult for me because I came to play football,” Jones said. “I didn’t really come to sit out or do any of that.”
Jones could have preserved a year of eligibility by sitting out the bowl game. A new NCAA rule allows players to participate in four games during a season without losing a year of eligibility. The Belk Bowl, a 28-0 loss to Virginia, was game No. 5 for Jones. He finished the season with 16 tackles, a quarterback hurry, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
A Class AAAAA first-team all-state player at Ware County High School in Waycross, Ga., Jones wasn’t about to sit out a game just when he was getting the hang of the Gamecocks’ defense.
“It was very difficult at first,” he said. “Through the first couple weeks of fall camp it kind of got to me, but during the season I started picking up on it and I was learning what to do and toward the end of the season, I started picking up more reps in practice. From there on, it’s been a great experience. Once I figured everything out I knew, ‘You can play here.’ Once those opportunities came I just jumped at them.”
This spring, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Jones is working as the first-team middle linebacker while senior T.J. Brunson, who has started 26 straight games at the position, sits out due to injury. When the fall arrives, Jones hopes to be pushing Brunson for snaps and even that starting job.
“Whoever is out there doing the right job and getting the job done and giving us the best chance of winning deserves the more snaps,” Jones said. “He’s a senior so he has that extra leverage, but I’m going to come in and work and learn from him, and from then on I’m going to let it be up to the coaches.”