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Ruston’s fearless corner

Semaj Jones doesn’t shy away from making big plays
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Ruston cornerback Semaj Jones has been a big play producer on defense for the undefeated Bearcats this season, like this return for a touchdown last week against Walker. Photo by Josh McDaniel

The scoreboard reads 42-17 with just under six minutes left. The Bearcats are fully in control on their way to a blowout victory over Walker.

But Semaj Jones still wants to leave his mark on the outcome. If there’s one thing you need to know about the 5-foot-9 cornerback for Ruston, his hunger to make a big play doesn’t waver to time.

So, there he is, along with his fellow defensive starters, as the clock hits under five minutes left with a four-touchdown lead – arms loose at his side and eyes locked on the Walker formation like a hawk scouting his prey.

But like a hawk, he’s patient. He waits for the time to strike. He lets his opponent make the mistake and is more than happy to make them pay for it.

As Walker’s motion-heavy formation unfolds, the ball is knocked loose, and Jones swoops in and snatches it. He flies past the Walker sideline filled with blank stares on his way to a 48-yard scoop-and-score to put his team up 49-17 with 4:28 left.

“I don’t fear anybody,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter the size, it’s who has a bigger heart. My mentality on the field is a big key. My energy affects the whole team, and mentality has to be high because you never know when it’s your last with brothers. That’s why I play every play like it’s my last. I love competition. That makes me work even harder against my opponent.”

Jones has been integral for the Bearcats on their way to an undefeated season, with the senior making momentum-changing plays from the first game of the year to the win over Walker.

In the opener against Warren Easton, with the Eagles leading 14-7 midway through the third, Aidan Anding blocked Antonio Taylor’s punt back 34 yards into the end-zone. Jones recovered it to make it a 14-13 ballgame – right when the Bearcats needed a spark.

Next week, against Jesuit, Ruston went into halftime tied 7-7 after Jones picked off Beau Perez in the red zone to keep the Bluejays from taking a lead. But he wasn’t done, as he later jumped in front of another pass from Perez and took it to the house for a 100-yard pick six.

It’s Jones’ favorite play, among many, this season.

“On that play, I got beat before the pick, so in my head I’m thinking my coaches are going to be mad so I have to make up for that,” Jones said. “Luckily, the ball came back to me and I made a play. I knew when I caught it, I was still a little tired, but I knew I had my brothers and they were going to block for me because we want the best for each other.”

The list goes on, from his game-sealing interception against Westgate with 40 seconds left, to last week’s fumble recovery score as well.

But it doesn’t surprise Ruston cornerbacks coach Kenny Wright, who saw Jones’ talent from the very beginning.

“I saw that out of Semaj really as a freshman going into his sophomore year,” Wright said. “He always had a knack for making big plays and being around the ball. He’s like a ball magnet. What I wanted to do with him is make sure he’s playing at a high level, work on his technique, his eyes, and make sure that’s all in a good place for him to take off.”

Wright, a former Bearcat football standout who played nine seasons in the NFL, may not suit up and make plays on the ball anymore, but he makes sure his unit lives out his competitive spirit when they take the field. Playing defensive back has to come with an edge and a mindset of domination, and Wright said Jones has been the prime example of someone who’s taken the staff’s messaging to heart.

“I’m just a competitive coach by nature so I always try to implement that into the guys, ” Wright said. “I always try to make it fun to where they’re competing and keeping them on edge. In my defensive meeting room, I’ve got five qualities of being a great cornerback. And the number one thing we’ve got is we want to be fearless. We don’t fear an opponent. We respect them, but we want to be fearless. Number two is short-term memory because you’re going to give up some plays on the outside. You gotta be able to wipe that out. You also gotta be smart and know what an offense is trying to do you. And then tough and resilient.”

Wright goes back to the Bearcats’ meeting with Lafayette Christian Academy back on Sept. 22, when four-star prospect Ju’Juan Johnson came to town and the glitz of him trying to break the state’s all-time yardage record was on the minds of many. That includes Ruston’s cornerbacks.

Ruston picked off Johnson five times on the way to a 29-26 win, while Jones made his mark with a blocked extra point.

“Anytime we’ve faced, ‘this is a top quarterback’ or ‘five-star recruit’ this and that, it gets them going,” Wright said. “That’s what I tell them is big players make big plays in big games and every time we play a good game against one of those opponents it fuels them.”

Wright’s approach to the game lines up with Jones, making the relationship stronger than most.

“He’s been coaching me since my sophomore year, really freshman year,” Jones said of Wright. “But his dawg energy is so high, his competitiveness is strong so when he coaches us, he only knows the right things. He teaches from the level he came from so we work hard to get where he was. He wants the best for us.”

Jones and the Bearcats will face No. 21 Mandeville Friday at Hoss Garrett Stadium with a trip to the state championship on the line.