Jaylon Jones wanted to gather as much information as he possibly could.
The junior cornerback was in uncharted territory. He’d never had a significant injury of any kind, much less a debilitating knee injury. In the days after Jones exited Ole Miss’ 2018 season-opening win over Texas Tech with a torn ACL, he came to terms with the hand he’d been dealt.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with, just with that being my first injury,” Jones said. “Honestly, after that first game, it was tough. But after that first game, things started to click. I accepted it and understood it was God’s plan for me.”
One of the primary reasons for his mental anguish was thinking about what could have been. Jones was poised to have a breakout junior season. He took the team’s first kickoff return of the season 94 yards for a touchdown and recorded seven tackles before he collided with C.J. Miller on a play early in the third quarter. The collision saw Miller accidentally roll into Jones’ knee. He went down writhing in pain.
“I did not expect it to be that bad,” Jones said. “I got up and walked a little bit but had some assistance from Mr. Pat (Jernigan), our trainer. I got to the tent thinking it was a normal hit, but right when the doctor felt it he said it was an ACL. It shocked me.”
The reality was difficult to grapple with, but Jones tried his best to gaze at the light at the end in the tunnel, rather than the dark days that loomed. He became a sponge of sorts, pestering any and every player on the Ole Miss roster who had ever suffered a knee injury. He spoke to Ken Webster, who suffered a gruesome knee injury in the first quarter of Ole Miss’ 2016 season opener against Florida State in Orlando. Webster made a full recovery and pieced together a productive 2017 season. He warned Jones of the mundane days to come, where progress is often hard to measure and each day feels like a repeat of the previous one.
Jones peppered D’Vaughn Pennamon with questions about his dislocated knee cap in the penultimate game of the 2017 season. Pennamon — who recently moved from running back to tight end — missed all of last year and, like Jones, is still waiting to make his return to the field. But his quest for information didn’t stop there. Jones didn’t discriminate. He talked to walk-on Jordan Farlow and Josh Ricketts about knee injuries they suffered. Jones wanted to know anything and everything about the rehab process, from anyone who would indulge him.
“I hope I didn’t annoy anyone,” Jones quipped. “It was my first injury. I took it seriously. I wanted to know everything. What they wish they would have done. What did they do? What is going to come with this process? I thank them a lot for that.”
The abundance of information came at a cost. Jones found himself putting up mile markers throughout his rehab. He used his teammates’ journey as a reference point. When he didn’t meet one, it bred frustration.
“I also learned through the process that everyone heals differently,” Jones said. “Everyone has their own knee. I started to get discouraged in comparing myself, wondering why I wasn’t where they were at a certain point. Once I realized it was my own thing, things started to click for me.”
It was a long, slow process. Mike MacIntyre remembers meeting Jones for the first time shortly after he was hired last December, over three months since the injury.
“He could barely walk it seemed like,” MacIntyre said. “He was just walking. He couldn’t move around and do drills. He did a little more in the spring.
As the weeks and months went by, the process began to get gradually less tedious. Jones sat out most of spring practice. The summer was a turning point. He ran and cut freely. As fall camp beckoned, Jones believed he had made a full recovery. He was a full participant in practice throughout camp. The medical staff placed no limitations on what he could do. As a reference point, Montrell Custis suffered a torn ACL a couple of weeks after Jones in the Rebels’ loss to Alabama and has still not fully recovered. Custis was in a green no-contact jersey for the entirety of camp. Jones has no hesitations with regards to the structure and stability of his knee.
“I don’t feel any uncertainty,” Jones said. “Like I have told everyone, I didn’t hurt it planting so I don’t even really think about it. It isn’t in the back of my head. Someone hit it on an accidental play. That’s football. It happens.”
The next step? Taking a snap in a game, something Jones has imagined repeatedly over the last 12 months. That moment is the light at the end of the tunnel, and he’s had his eyes placed upon it ever since he hobbled inside the medical tent at NRG Stadium and received the diagnosis. That day will finally come on Saturday when the Rebels take the field at the Liberty Bowl. When asked about what that first play will feel like, Jones struggled to contain his emotion.
“I can’t explain it,” Jones said. “I am even smiling right now. I don’t even know, man. I can’t wait to experience it. I can’t wait to get back to doing what I love to do.”
Photos by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletic