Former South Carolina linebacker Ernest Jones gaining steam in NFL draft process

Eric Boynton

There were times during last season's undeniably porous performance by South Carolina's defense that Ernest Jones was making every tackle on the field, and that wasn't exactly far from the truth.

The junior linebacker posted eye-popping individual numbers while becoming his unit's heart and soul, a vocal leader who regularly met with the media unafraid to tell the truth about the defense's underwhelming performances.

Now the 20-year-old is enjoying a far more positive spin as he navigates the NFL draft process, meeting with franchises and auditioning for league personnel at last month's pro day on campus, where he was one of five USC official NFL combine invitees.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Jones product ran 4.69 in the 40-yard sprint, posted a vertical jump of 38 1/2 inches and did 19 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press.

South Carolina linebacker Ernest Jones celebrates a play in a game against the Florida last fall in Gainesville, Fla.

The feedback he's been receiving is "always positive," Jones said. "I feel like I didn't have that hype behind my name, so now teams are understanding who Ernest Jones is, looking at the film and seeing how I play and it's been great."

Jones described the draft process as having "been crazy and kind of reminds me of the recruiting process in college. But ultimately I've enjoyed every bit of it. Just sitting down and talking with all these teams and hearing from them and allowing me to show them who I am as a person. It still hasn't kind of hit me yet I'm going to the NFL, but I'm going so it needs to hit me soon."

The three-day, seven-round draft starts April 29. Jones is ranked as the ninth-best inside linebacker by Athlon Sports, 10th by ESPN (and 127th best overall prospect) and 11th top inside linebacker by Sports Illustrated.

He has been dreaming of playing professionally since he first began playing football around the age of 4.

"As soon as I put a football in my hand I knew where I wanted to go," Jones said. "At that moment I knew this is what I'm going to do and this is how I'm going to take care of myself and my family. I'm blessed to be in this position and thankful for it."

USC linebacker Ernest Jones, left, tries to strip the ball from Mississippi wide receiver Dontario Drummond last fall.

Jones said whoever drafts him is "getting what you need. If you need me to play inside and make all the tackles, all the calls, be that leader in the middle, that's what I'm doing. If you need me to go out there and cover, I've developed that. I'm excited about this season, and there is no need to look further than (me) because I'm going to bring everything to the table that's needed."

As a freshman, Jones didn't participate in spring practice as he recovered from a fractured back and was limited to five games. He enjoyed a breakout sophomore season with a team-leading 97 tackles along with 5 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, five pass breakups and a forced fumble. He led the team again in tackles last season with 86 in addition to five for loss, three quarterback hurries and both forcing and recovering a fumble.

2020:A finally healthy Ernest Jones brings intensity, enthusiasm to South Carolina's defense

He played the first nine of the 10-game schedule before missing the finale because of an injured ankle, staying on the roster despite teammates such as defensive backs Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu opting out with a month remaining.

"I grew a lot (at USC)," Jones said. "I came in and was definitely not a vocal guy. But just being with my (teammates) and developing a connection with them it truly made me grow into the man I'm becoming. The coaching staff around me always helped me in any way I needed it. I owe this university everything, and it hurt when I couldn't finish the season last year because I just wanted to play for that Gamecock symbol on the front of my jersey."

Vanderbilt running back Keyon Henry-Brooks (21) rushes past South Carolina linebacker Ernest Jones (53) during the second quarter at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Jones also credited former USC coach Will Muschamp with his mindset in preparing for the draft, adding, "How he goes about his day and the love he has for the game. It rubbed off on me, so I definitely feel the preparation is there. I developed a lot throughout my time here at South Carolina."

Jones' determination goes beyond just his love of playing. Like many players, his plans on taking full advantage of a chance to play in the NFL have even more to do with his family.

"Coming from where I come from and how I grew up, everything wasn't always the best," Jones said. "So now being in this position and knowing what I'm going into I've taken heed to what this opportunity means to me and for my family. Just putting us in a better position."