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Sidney Jones headlines a very good Washington defense

It is easy to see the talent at the top in college football. Alabama is obviously and predictably loaded, but Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson have often been highlighted for their deep crop of NFL prospects.

While those teams deserve their accolades, the University of Washington is right in that mix as a team, but their upperclassmen haven’t received equal attention from draftniks and analysts. Part of that is because superstars Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin aren’t draft eligible. The other part is that the strongest part of Washington as a team generally isn’t seen.

The Washington secondary should be considered as good as any position group in the country, and cornerback Sidney Jones has been as effective as any SEC, ACC, or Big 10 defensive back worth mentioning. Standing at 6-foot tall, he has the height and athleticism to play with any receiver in the country. He doesn’t have an interception on the season after picking off four passes last year and two as a freshman because teams aren’t giving him a chance to make a play on the ball.

The front seven got a lot of the credit against Stanford earlier this season, suffocating Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal rushing attack while sacking the quarterback eight times. However, as you can see on this play, they shouldn’t get all the credit for a very productive day.

Jones is absolutely stuck on his receiver in man coverage. The Stanford quarterback is looking to hit the intermediate route as it breaks over the middle, but there isn’t any space between his intended target and the defensive back. The rest of the game might as well have been the same story, as Jones wasn’t targeted in coverage a single time according to Pro Football Focus.

That isn’t absolutely true, as he was challenged on a fly route up the sidelines, which he had covered well and actually came away with an interception on the play. However, two flags against the defense — a questionable holding call on Jones that was declined and an unquestionable roughing the passer which was accepted — negated the effort and wiped all memory of the play off the board.

Safety Budda Baker and fellow cornerback Kevin King held up their ends of the bargain as well, but Jones has emerged as the guy in that secondary and on that defense. Yet, like previous defensive backs at Washington (Marcus Peters) and some of Chris Peterson’s cornerbacks at Boise State, Jones plays more physical than his frame would suggest.

On this play, Jones comes up off his man after the ball is in the air, recognizing the underneath throw to the sidelines will beat his teammate. Jones stops quickly and charges to the ball with acceleration, making a strong tackle. Willingness to tackle is an important trait as NFL offenses rely on receivers breaking tackles to sustain offense, and Jones is able to take on blocks and put his body into the play.

It was also impressive how willing he was to mix up in the run game against Staford. By design, the Washington defense matches Jones up against the widest receiver to the boundary. Stanford — rather than throw a receiver to the wolves out there — often elected to overload the opposite side and try to run the football.

Jones’ assignment on these plays often became the tight end or fullback, and the running formation queued an automatic blitz off the edge. Jones continually ran directly into the fullback to initiate contact, pulling McCaffrey’s lead block away from the hole early in the play, allowing his linebackers a free run up the middle. Not only is his willingness to do this appreciated by his coaches (and by me), but he would hit the fullback with real force, unafraid of taking on a bigger player.

While that was good and well, Jones will be judged by his ability to stop top receivers for Washington and when moving on to the NFL. As a sophomore against JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jones battled him well.

Smith-Schuster is among the top-two receivers in this draft class, and Jones runs with him up the sideline without a problem. Jones will have to run well at the NFL Combine to prove he has deep speed — as good as he is, Smith-Schuster doesn’t have a reputation as a burner — but a great 40-yard dash could put him in play to be among the first cornerbacks off the board.

With a strong group at the position, there will be a lot more jockeying between now and April, but Jones has definitely established himself as one of the best cornerback prospects in college football for the Huskies.

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