In a sport rife with dubious 40-yard-dash times, the coaches at Michigan State don't need a stopwatch to know that Greg Jones is fast. There are no sub-4.4s in his biographical entry in the Spartans' media guide. Last spring coach Mark Dantonio said Jones was merely one of three linebackers on the team who "run 4.5 or thereabouts." Pressed on this point recently, Dantonio—who spent nearly 20 years as a Division I-A defensive assistant—noted the difference between track speed and football speed, then added, "Greg plays as fast as anybody in a short space that I've been around."
The Big Ten media recently voted the 6'1", 228-pound junior the conference's preseason defensive player of the year. Combining speed with a knack for fighting off blocks—"He might as well be a martial arts student," says defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi—Jones ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles last season and led Michigan State in tackles for loss, with 14. He became so valuable that midway through the season, the coaching staff moved him from the strong side to the middle, where he would be in better position to make plays all over the field. "I feel very confident looking straight at the running back," Jones says of his position at the center of the action. "The running back might not be so confident."
Jones was anything but poised when he arrived in East Lansing in 2007. A defensive end at Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller High, he knew only the basics of defending the run and had no experience in pass coverage. But Dantonio, in his first year with the Spartans, had made it a priority to rebuild a woeful defense. Midway through the season he promoted Jones to starter. Playing almost exclusively on instinct and raw ability, he led the team with 78 tackles and earned freshman All-America honors. It wasn't unusual for him to line up on the wrong side of the formation, then recover to make a play.
Jones, one of the leaders on a team that is a dark horse behind Big Ten favorites Ohio State and Penn State, has the potential to be such a game changer that this year he will be turned loose in obvious passing situations. A ferocious blitzer, he'll move around the field when Michigan State, which brings back eight starters on defense, goes to its nickel package.
If Jones has a hole in his game, it's in pass coverage. In his first two seasons he had no interceptions and just three pass breakups. "It's all about me being in the right position," Jones says. "I've been watching a lot more film and feel a lot more comfortable."
Narduzzi, for one, agrees, saying, "Right now, Greg is just about perfect." Good news for Michigan State. Bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.
Now on SI.com
Look for Stewart Mandel's Mailbag every Wednesday at SI.com/bonus
Significant injuries have three teams from SI's Top 20 scrambling to make adjustments.
Armond Armstead, DE, USC
The broken left foot he suffered last week, which will sideline him for six weeks, was bad enough. Throw in injuries to three other potential starters, and the Trojans' depth will be tested early on.
Darren Evans, RB, Virginia Tech
The bruising rusher was lost for the season on Aug. 11 with a torn left ACL. Redshirt freshman Ryan Williams (below), a 5'9", 205-pound flash, will get a shot.
Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State
Touted as the next great product of Linebacker U, he tore his right ACL last week. Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee are two of the best, but the Nittany Lions are otherwise thin at the position. Senior Josh Hull may get the job.
JC RIDLEY/CAL SPORT MEDIA (JONES)
INSIDE STORY Jones moved to the middle because the Spartans believed he could then make plays all over the field.
LEE COLEMAN/ICON SMI (WILLIAMS)