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Judge, jury and executioner

They call him The Judge, and Southern Oregon University cornerback Karrington Jones can really bring down the gavel with his Saturday rulings.

Teammates sometimes refer to him by the nickname, SOU linebacker Mylz Blake explains, because, well, he’s known for locking down his football opponents and sentencing them to afternoons of misery.

Jones’ zone of jurisdiction has typically been on the left side of the field, on an invisible island with the opposition’s top target.

“When the ball is in the air, the ball has to be mine,” says the senior, whose seven interceptions this season are tied for second most in the NAIA.

The 23-year-old from Los Angeles is a defensive linchpin for the seventh-ranked Raiders, who have returned to Daytona Beach, Fla., to defend their national title. SOU will face sixth-ranked Marian (Ind.) on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s championship contest.

Jones slipped on his national title ring three times before stashing it away, letting the jewelry rest in a small box in hopes of picking up another shiny piece of memorabilia.

“I told myself after the championship game that I’d do whatever I could to better myself and be a good teammate so we could get back,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy deal and we’d have a big target on us.”

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Jones joined the Raiders in 2014 after transferring from a then-struggling Portland State University program. His production from last season to this year was significant, and he cites several factors for that: unwavering loyalty toward his SOU teammates and the coaching staff, a productive offseason in the gym and the birth of his son, 1-year-old Kasen.

His contributions on Saturday will be crucial, considering he’ll be going up against the country’s seventh-rated passer in Marian quarterback Hayden Northern and the nation’s top receiver in Krishawn Hogan.

The expected matchup with the 6-foot-4 Hogan could be one of the most thrilling on the field.

“I just want to be physical, play fast and have good technique,” Jones says.

Jones worked on his strength and mechanics during the offseason. He improved his diet, cutting out fast food, and focused on cooking at his apartment. The result was a gain of 10 pounds and an even faster set of wheels.

Jones has registered 19 passes defended in 12 games this year, also tied for second most in the NAIA. He and Darrian Winston of Baker (Kan.) each have seven picks (Nick Holshoe of Concordia, Mich., is first with nine).

On Oct. 10, Jones recorded two interceptions and six passes defended against Montana Western. He’s picked off passes in playoff victories over Kansas Wesleyan and Morningside (Iowa).

Jones also has 33 tackles this season. In 14 games last year, he had three picks, 10 breakups and 30 tackles.

“He’s doing what we expected him to do, and he’s doing his part,” says Blake, Jones’ former housemate.

At Portland State, Jones tallied 10 tackles in 11 games in 2012. His one NCAA Division I interception came against Washington at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 15.

After a redshirt season in Portland in 2010, Jones had three tackles and earned one start in 2011.

Jones played quarterback and safety and even punted in high school at West Adams Prep in Los Angeles.

Jones, who did not play in 2013, says he left PSU’s program after feeling uncertain about its direction.

PSU head coach Nigel Burton was fired in 2014 after going 21-36 in five years. He was replaced by Bruce Barnum, who helped guide the Vikings to a 9-3 record this season.

“I didn’t like how things were going when I was there,” he says, “but everything happens for a reason. I’m happy for those guys now.”

Jones emailed SOU and made a visit two summers ago while also considering Western Oregon, Central Washington and Nebraska Kearney.

He says he fell in love with the Raider atmosphere and appreciated head coach Craig Howard’s personality and philosophies.

Howard appreciates Jones’ ability and attitude.

“His instincts are great,” Howard says. “He’s someone who has grown and matured and we are so glad to have him.”

Being a dad changed Jones for the better, he says, prompting him to look at life differently. He immediately called home to check on Kasen when he heard news of the passing of Kolton Fasnacht, the 4-month-old son of offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht. The team had just defeated Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., the day before the tragedy.

“That touched me,” says Jones, holding back emotion.

There have been tears and laughter for Jones in Ashland. Looking back, he says he couldn’t be happier about his decision to become a Raider.

“To win a national championship and then get a chance to do it again with this team?” he says. “These guys mean a lot to me.”

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt