CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You could hear the cheers from almost two football fields away on Thursday when Carolina Panthers nickel back Colin Jones picked off a Cam Newton pass at the goal line and returned it down the left sideline.
There were more cheers when Jones disrupted another Newton pass deep down the right sideline later in practice.
Jones is the kind of player teammates cheer for.
He’s not the fastest or the most athletic, but he works hard and he makes plays. He also isn’t flamboyant or outspoken. He didn’t toss the ball back to Newton as defensive end Charles Johnson did after intercepting a pass near the goal line last week.
He simply jogged back to the huddle to prepare for the next play.
But Jones did appreciate the cheers.
“It’s good,’’ Jones said. “It’s important to keep building, keep positive.’’
Jones was born in Bridgeport, Texas, and played at Texas Christian University. He was a sixth-round draft pick by San Francisco in 2011 and was traded to Carolina at the start of the 2012 season.
He went from a special teams player his first two seasons to part-time starter at safety and nickel in 2014.
Jones has gotten a lot more work at nickel during offseason workouts because Bene’ Benwikere, the player Carolina expects to play the position, has been nursing a sore hamstring.
Jones is taking advantage of that time just as he did last year. When Benwikere moved to the fulltime corner position for the final four regular season games and two playoff games, Jones was a solid replacement.
He finished the season with five tackles for loss, only three less than team leader Luke Kuechly, who played almost every defensive snap. He also had three passes defensed, a forced fumble and a sack.
Secondary coach Steve Wilks, subbing for Rivera on Thursday while the fifth-year head coach attended his daughter’s graduation from UCLA, said Jones has improved “tremendously over the years.’’
He was particularly impressed with Thursday’s interception that seemed to boost the energy of the entire defense.
“One of the biggest things we talk about as a defense is in the red zone, creating takeaways and taking points off the board,’’ Wilks said. “One of the devastating things you can do down there is get a takeaway, and Colin did that today.
“He sparked the defense and got us going a little bit.’’
Jones had added motivation.
“They got me on it two days ago,’’ he said. “I couldn’t let it happen again.’’