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December 1, 2009TUSCALOOSA _ He has only one 100-yard game this season, has scored fewer touchdowns than the backup running back, and isn't listed among the Southeastern Conference leaders in either receptions or receiving yards.
Yet University of Alabama sophomore Julio Jones still attracts as much attention from the opposition as anyone, and is frequently double-teamed. No one not wearing crimson likes to see the ball heading his way, whether the 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver is streaking down the sideline or cutting across the middle on a crossing route.
"He's difficult to tackle and he's also a good vertical guy," Coach Nick Saban said. "We'd certainly like to make plays down the field, I think everybody would. Big plays are always a significant part of scoring a lot of points and have something to do with outcomes of games.
"I also think in critical third-down situations to have a guy that can do all things makes you a complete receiver. I certainly think Julio is a complete receiver, in terms of his ability to get down the field as well as intermediate and short crossing patterns."
Saturday, Jones may have his toughest test of the season when he lines up against Florida junior cornerback Joe Haden, one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back. He's made four interceptions and forced two fumbles, but is also second in team tackles with 59.
Against South Carolina, the 5-foot-11 Haden made 11 tackles, 10 solo.
But factoring in what happened in last year's SEC Championship Game, when Haden said Jones was "the strongest receiver I've seen all year. No one is close," is what makes it the most intriguing matchup of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 rematch at the Georgia Dome.
Jones had five catches for 124 yards and the Tide scored each time he touched the ball. Beforehand, Alabama's longest two passes had both been 40 yards, but on the Tide's first play of its second possession Jones caught a play-action throw, avoided both Haden's tackle and safety Major Wright to turn an 18-yard reception into a 64-yard gain.
The performance was even more remarkable considering the injuries Jones was playing through. Not only did he sustain a painful sports hernia against Georgia and endured nine more games with it, but he also had shoulder and wrist injuries at Tennessee. All three required offseason surgery.
Jones indicated Tuesday that physically he's in much better shape for the rematch, although this season has taken its toll. A helmet to the knee against Florida International led to a slow start, with just 13 catches for 175 yards and one touchdown over the first seven games.
However, the last five have been a different story with 27 receptions for 370 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's worked extremely hard and faced a lot of adversity this year," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "He's done a great job getting back to doing what he does best, and that's making plays in clutch situations. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."
Still, the statistical difference has been sizable. Jones started all 14 games in 2008 and rewrote all of Alabama's rookie records, finishing with 58 receptions for 924 yards and four touchdowns. Consequently, he was named the SEC Freshman of the Year.
This season he has 40 catches for 545 yards and three touchdowns. A number of other receivers have benefited, like sophomore Marquis Maze with 25 receptions for 423 yards.
But Haden isn't being asked about anyone else but Jones this week, and CBS will almost certainly have a camera fixed on him the whole game.
"Julio, I think he likes the boundary, the short side of the field more often," Haden said. "I play boundary corner, so whenever he lines up to the short side I'll be lined up against him. Whenever he lines up to the field, he'll be lined up against Janoris (Jenkins). And Julio, he's a really big, strong guy. Pretty fast.
"What I'm going to do is try to get my hands on him, throw off the timing. Stuff like that and the same thing with Janoris, get my hands on him, try to throw off his timing and try to keep him off a little bit."
When asked how he's prepping for Haden, Jones said: "Just watching film on him. He's a real talented corner, though. Both of the corners, their whole defense is real talented."
It may take all of Jones' ability for the Tide to come out on top. He took a screen 73 yards against LSU, caught a 48-yard strike from McElroy at Mississippi State and had a career-high nine receptions, three during the key game-winning drive (of which two converted third downs) last week at Auburn.
"I expect to make those plays," Jones said.
His stepping up was even more crucial considering that the Tigers had effectively shut down Alabama's running game.
"I think that all players need to know how they affect other players," Saban said. "He had a very productive game in this game and played probably his best game of the year, not only in the number of passes that he caught, but he blocked, played hard and really competed well in the game in all aspects of the game. He did a great job and I think it's a great lesson for all players.
"Just because you do what you're supposed to do all the time, doesn't necessarily mean you're always going to have success. You have to believe that's going to give you the best opportunity to have success and doing your best all the time is going to enhance you to be able to take advantage of your opportunities when they come. I think Julio has done a great job of that in the last three or four weeks and he's got some opportunities in this game and took advantage of them."
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