If you're pondering players the Nebraska football team could least afford to lose in 2017, Chris Jones would rank near the top.

Which is why the senior cornerback's knee injury is an extremely critical development.

Arguably the Huskers' top defensive player, Jones recently underwent a meniscus repair on his left knee, according to NU head coach Mike Riley.

The normal recovery time for the procedure is four to six months, meaning the injury jeopardizes Jones' 2017 season.

Riley made the injury announcement in a news release.

Even if Jones were to return in mid-November this year, he would miss nine games. Nebraska's final three regular-season games are Nov. 11 at Minnesota, Nov. 18 at Penn State and Nov. 24 against Iowa in Lincoln.

Jones' injury is a critical blow to a Nebraska defense that is short on experience and depth at the cornerback positions. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Jones started a combined 20 games the past two seasons and was expected to lead a group of corners that includes sophomores Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee as well as redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle.

Jackson, a heralded four-star recruit in the class of 2016, played in all 13 games last season as the Huskers' third cornerback behind Jones and Joshua Kalu (who was moved to safety in the spring). The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Jackson made his first start in the Music City Bowl against Tennessee and played well in spurts while also admittedly struggling at times.

Lee, a four-star recruit in the class of 2015, played in eight games last season, primarily on special teams. However, he made a significant move up the depth chart this past spring, when he staked a claim for playing time as a backup corner and perhaps a starting nickel.

"He knew what was in front of him," Jones said at the end of spring drills. "I knew exactly what kind of player he could be once he settled down and took control of his own destiny, and I'm really proud of that kid."

Riley had hoped Elijah Blades, a touted four-star recruit in the class of 2017, could help immediately this season at cornerback, but Blades' academic eligibility remains in question as preseason camp nears.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 195-pound Jones, who hasn't redshirted at Nebraska, was going to be counted on to be a stabilizer, and perhaps a star, in 2017. He was an honorable-mention All-Big Ten choice last season, when he recorded three interceptions, including a 33-yard return for a touchdown at Indiana. He finished with 37 tackles and ranked second on the team with 10 pass breakups.

First-year Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said in the spring that Jones "approaches his work with a deep professionalism."

His injury could mean that the senior Kalu returns to cornerback. Kalu started 13 games at cornerback last season and led the way with 11 pass breakups. He also started 13 games in 2015, working at both corner and nickel. His three picks were second on the team. But he impressed coaches this spring with his work at safety. On the other hand, the Huskers have more depth at safety than they do at cornerback.

If Kalu returns to corner, it could pave the way for senior Kieron Williams' return to the starting lineup. After Kalu's move to safety in the spring, Williams was relegated to reserve status in practice despite making nine starts last season and leading the team with five interceptions.

Because of his injury, Jones will not attend the Big Ten Media Day and Kickoff Luncheon on July 24-25 in Chicago. Aaron Williams, a junior safety who is expected to nail down a starting position in 2017, will replace Jones in representing Nebraska, joining junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee and senior inside linebacker Chris Weber.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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