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Healthy Akil Jones making impact on CU Buffs defense

Junior linebacker had 10 tackles in loss to Air Force

Colorado's Akil Jones, center, makes a tackle against Air Force on Saturday at Folsom Field.
Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado’s Akil Jones, center, makes a tackle against Air Force on Saturday at Folsom Field.

The way things were going for Akil Jones, it was beginning to feel like he might not ever make an impact on the Colorado defense.

Finally healthy, however, the junior linebacker has stepped up in the past two games, coming off the bench to deliver from key plays for the Buffaloes.

“I feel like we have a ton of guys who could step up and fill the role like at any second, but I’m just thankful that the coach saw me and gave me the opportunity to step up, and I’m just happy I made some plays,” Jones said.

Jones recorded a career-high 10 tackles in 41 snaps played off the bench during Saturday’s 30-23 overtime loss to Air Force. It was a performance that could lead to more playing time for Jones as the Buffs (2-1) prepare for Saturday’s Pac-12 opener at No. 24 Arizona State (3-0).

The 6-foot, 230-pound Jones, from San Jose, Calif., is in his fourth season with the Buffaloes, but up until this year he spent his time behind veterans, while also dealing with injuries. Coming into this year, he had played a total of 40 career snaps on defense, with seven tackles.

Now, for the first time, the Buffs are leaning on him in crucial situations.

During a Sept. 7 win against Nebraska, Jones came off the bench to record four tackles in 13 snaps. He’s also got two tackles for loss and three third-down stops this season.

Despite the lack of overall experience, Jones has displayed no hesitation as he has relieved starter Jonathan Van Diest in the last two games.

“I just got enough reps in practice,” he said. “I feel like practice is honestly harder than the game; that’s just being honest. So when I stepped out there on the field, I was like, ‘Our scouts are giving us a better look than our own opponents.’ It’s really great. We got everybody working together to get better and it’s just become second nature.”

In 2017, Jones dealt with a sports hernia. Last year, it was ankle injury that bothered him. Then, this year, on the third day of fall camp, he suffered a deep laceration to his leg after, he believes, a teammate’s cleats ripped through the skin below his knee. The injury was similar to what CU safety Aaron Maddox experienced last week against Air Force.

“It took me out for longer than I thought it would,” he said. “I ended up being out for pretty much the entire fall camp.”

Jones credits CU’s medical staff for getting him back on the field as soon as possible, but with all of his bad luck, Jones wasn’t sure when he’d get an opportunity to play.

“Everyone comes from high school as the star player and everybody thinks they’re going to play (in college),” he said, “but then once the reality hits, you have to go back to humbling yourself and understanding, ‘How did you get there in the first place to be in that star in high school?’ and it was hard work just sticking with it. I feel like I came back to that and coaches are recognizing it and I’m just happy to be a part of this program.”

Coming back from his latest injury, Jones needed a few weeks to return to football shape, but said during the Air Force game he felt like he was in much better shape.

Going forward, Jones will continue to battle for playing time. Junior Nate Landman is the Buffs’ leader at inside linebacker, but Jones and Van Diest will fight for playing time.

“I’m pretty confident (in knowing the defense),” he said. “I’m still learning a few of the packages. For the most part I feel pretty confident out there being able to make calls and checks and everything. But you know, I’m trying to get to the next level and not only know what I’m doing, but the guys next to me.”

For Jones, it feels good to put his injury frustration aside and focus on his job on the field.

“Nobody wants to be injured, but it’s just something you can’t think about when you’re out there,” he said. “You just gotta go 100 percent and just hope for the best because the moment you start dwelling on it and hoping you don’t get injured, that’s when it happens.”