Jones gets second chance as USF hosts Pittsburgh

Some players might feel fortunate to get a chance to play in USF’s season opener against Pittsburgh Monday. One USF football player feels lucky to be alive.

Last Christmas USF strong safety Johnnie Jones was shot in the neck and shoulder after a dispute outside a bar in his home town of Sarasota.

Doctors told him one bullet was two centimeters away from paralyzing him and an inch away from hitting major arteries in his neck.

But coming off surgery July 21 to remove the bullet from his back, Jones is starting on defense against the Panthers.

It was anticipated Jones would redshirt this season, but during the Bulls’ second scrimmage of the fall he decided he could play.

“I started making contact and getting back into it and it was like, ‘Why waste a year?'” Jones said. “I feel good. Everything is great. No injuries. I haven’t lost a step in my game.”

Jones said he wanted to get through a full scrimmage before he made his decision. Before this fall, He hadn’t played full contact football since USF played Memphis at the end of the 2003 season.

“It feels good to have him coming back,” free safety Javan Camon said. “Even though (at first) he didn’t say he was coming back I always knew he was.”

Quarterback Pat Julmiste added, “Johnnie’s a warrior. Everybody thought he was going to redshirt but he’s such a warrior that he can’t redshirt. It’s not in him.

“I think this year is going to be very special for him. He’s going to prove to everybody that he doesn’t need to redshirt and that the gunshots that he had didn’t affect him.”

Jones said he is just happy to be back around his teammates, who he said are his second family. He knows he is fortunate to be able to still play football.

“It gives me energy every time I go out through the gates. Every time I put on my pads, I get energy just from being there. Because I know at one point in time it was almost taken from me. It could have been taken forever.

“I can’t look back. I already made the decision so I can’t pull myself out now. I just thank God I’m here. He blessed me to be here, to play football and do what I love — to be with my family and to be with my second family, my teammates. And that’s that,” Jones said.

When the Bulls take the field Monday there will be many fresh faces in starting positions. On defense, five players will be new to the starting lineup. Camon, Jones, Patrick St. Louis (linebacker), Devon Davis (linebacker) and Trae Williams (cornerback) all debut. Only wide receiver J.B. Garris hasn’t started on offense.

USF is coming off a 7-4 season. Sophomore Pat Julmiste is the starting quarterback after he fought off former starter Ronnie Banks in the offseason. Julmiste is playing behind five returning offensive lineman. Senior Clenton Crossley starts at running back.

Pittsburgh travels to Tampa for its second meeting with the Bulls Monday at 4:30 p.m. In 2001, USF defeated the Panthers 35-26 at Heinz field. The teams will be Big East conference rivals when USF leaves Conference USA after this season.

The game was originally scheduled for Saturday but the game will be on ESPN since the schools agreed to move it to Monday.

The Panthers, 8-5 in 2003, only return three players on offense. Larry Fitzgerald — who in 2003 led the NCAA in touchdowns, receiving yards per game, and total receiving yards — left Pittsburgh early to play in the NFL after last season. Tyler Palko takes over at quarterback after redshirting in 2003.