Dan MurphyESPN Staff Writer
Jones’ time in East Lansing has followed the path that head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff prefer to prescribe: take a redshirt year, experiment at a couple of positions, work your way onto the field on special teams and in a backup role and then be ready to take over a starting spot as a senior. Jones has ticked off all of those boxes on his way to the top of the depth chart on the team’s new-look defensive line this spring.
“That’s the rule rather than the exception,” said co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel. “You pay your dues and you learn what we’re all about, about Spartan toughness. When your time comes, you roll. It’s great to have guys that have been in the program for a while that can remind the young guys that this doesn’t come easy.”
The list of exceptions might be longer this season up front, where the Spartans have to replace three starters from a year ago and just lost two potential contributors for personal reasons earlier this week. Potential All-American Malik McDowell has played since his freshman year. Redshirt freshman Raequan Williams is turning heads this spring. And the incoming freshman class — a group Dantonio said might add up to his best crop of defensive linemen yet — will likely filter into the two-deep by the end of August.
That makes reminders like Jones and fellow dues-paid veteran Damon Knox all the more important this season.
“I’ve always looked up to those guys and always had someone to look up to,” Jones said. “It’s weird being on the other side of it now. One of my goals this spring was to teach the young guys the things I’ve been taught, kind of passing it down through.”
Jones has gone through a transition while growing into what is expected to be a starting role this fall. He arrived on campus as a tight end who looked ready for a motorcycle rally — long hair, well-inked arms and a shaggy beard.
He didn’t actually start his high school football career until his sophomore season because Ridgewood High coach John Slusser wasn’t ready yet to get rid of the no-hair-below-the-ears edict for his players. Slusser bugged him daily to turn in his skateboard for a pair of shoulder pads, and when you’re well on your way to being a 6-foot-5 athlete in West Lafayette, Ohio (population: 2,300; football stadium capacity: just about 2,300), you eventually end up on the football field.
“The hair was pretty long,” said the now sharply-coiffed senior. “It was definitely over a foot, for sure down to the shoulder. I ended up cutting it freshman year [of college]. It was a good decision for sure.”
Football turned out to be a pretty good decision, too. Jones won 31 of the 35 games he played in high school. Add that to Michigan State’s 36-5 run during the last three seasons and Jones hasn’t played in many losses during his career. He said that track record has helped buoy his confidence as he climbed the ranks in East Lansing.
Jones played in 13 of 14 games last year behind starters Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas and picked up seven tackles. This spring, along with getting comfortable in his new role as one of the position group’s pace-setters, he’s been focused on learning nuances like how to read an offensive tackle’s hips and shoulders and how to predict what’s coming at him based on a formation.
Tressel said it’s hard to know how a player will react when he’s finally thrust into this new role, but Jones has carried himself like a starter since the first day of practice this spring. That’s led to an upward spiral of increased production and increased confidence.
“He had an opportunity, and he’s grabbing it,” Tressel said. The confidence level he has is what I’m most excited to see. … It’s grown, but I think walking in [this spring] he felt like he’s the man and it’s his time.”