Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi (12) moves to pass the ball before his is hit by Michigan State's Greg Jones (53) during the second quarter of their Big Ten Conference football game Saturday, Oct. 4, 2008 in East Lansing, Mich. Iowa lost 16-13. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
CHICAGO — Greg Jones surprised many Big Ten observers when he bypassed the NFL draft and returned to Michigan State for his senior season.
Jones, now a four-year starter, was a consensus first-team All-American linebacker and named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He led the Big Ten in tackles and posted nine sacks. He was named the league’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year this summer.
Like many players of his caliber, Jones was evaluated as a potential draft pick.
“I received a third-round grade,” he said. “I wasn’t exactly happy about that. I still respect it, and I felt like they gave me some respect.”
Jones, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, guesses that it was his size that could have hurt him in the evaluation process. He figures his performance this year will propel him to a higher grade in post-season workouts.
“I didn’t make enough plays,” Jones said. “I guess I need to make more plays.”
Penn State running back Evan Royster, a first-team all-Big Ten selection last year, begs to differ. He’s competed against Jones annually in the teams’ regular-season finale and admires what Jones can do on the field. In fact, Royster used every possible superlative when describing Jones’ play.
“Ridiculous. An unbelievable athlete,” Royster said. “I remember watching some of the game tape from him last year and the year before. He makes plays. He’s all over the field. He’s one of the quickest outside guys I’ve seen.”
Jones has saved his best performances for Penn State in each of the last two seasons. He posted season-highs in tackles with 15 in each game, including 12 unassisted and 3.5 for loss in 2008. He added 2.5 tackles for loss last year.
“I’m really glad a couple of the plays where I was in he didn’t through the line like he did on our other running back, Stephfon Green,” Royster said. “(Jones) got through and got him almost before he got the ball one time. It looked like it hurt.”
Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said Jones affects the team in numerous ways, not just with his defensive performance.
“I think not only from a physical standpoint but from a psychological standpoint, it talks about his maturity as a person and talks about our overall program,” Dantonio said.
Jones eschews individual awards, unless they come from within the team context. He has started 27 consecutive games at Michigan State and has become the unquestioned defensive leader. He’s the team captain and inspires his teammates with his play, not vocally.
“I plan on leading by example and being consistent. Practice what I preach and not embarrassing guys,” Jones said. “I’ve never been a guy to point a guy out and yell at him in front of a bunch of guys unless he responds to it. I’ve done that a couple of times, and some guys respond to that. I can kind of tell the type of guys that don’t and you talk to them in the locker room after practice or a rough day.”
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
2009 record: 6-7, 4-4 Big Ten (lost 41-31 to Texas Tech in Alamo Bowl)
2009 review: Michigan State football is the poster boy for underachievement, and the 2009 season was no different. After starting 1-3, the Spartans won three straight. Then, it lost on the last play of the game to Iowa in a 15-13 loss and the following week allowed 42 points to Minnesota, which had the league’s worst offense. Michigan State beat Western Michigan and Purdue to earn a bowl berth, but had 10 players suspended for the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech in a loss.
2010 schedule: S4 Western Michigan; S11 Florida Atlantic (in Detroit); S18 Notre Dame; S25 Northern Colorado; O2 Wisconsin; O9 at Michigan; O16 Illinois; O23 at Northwestern; O30 at Iowa; N6 Minnesota; N20 Purdue; N27 at Penn State
2010 preview: The Spartans could be the Big Ten’s dark horse. Michigan State returns its quarterback, running back, tight end and two of its top three receivers but must rebuild its offensive line. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was efficient last year, throwing 19 TDs to only nine interceptions. Cousins completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 2,680 yards. Michigan State’s foundation is on defense, where it boasts two-time all-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones, who was selected as the league’s preseason defender of the year. Jones, an All-American last year, had 154 tackles and nine sacks. He’s joined by two-year starter Eric Gordon and possibly true freshman William Gholston. The Spartans will incorporate portions of a 3-4 defense to accommodate its stout selection of linebackers. Michigan State also returns one of the league’s best punters in Aaron Bates, although it lost perennial top kicker Brett Swenson.
Making the rounds: Michigan State misses Ohio State, plays within its state borders in its first seven games and opens league play with Wisconsin at home. If the Spartans can upset Wisconsin, they could be 8-0 setting up a showdown at Iowa. To say the schedule is favorable is an understatement, but Michigan State historically tends to underachieve, something the team must overcome.
Bowl game if: The Spartans take care of games against lesser competition and the Big Ten’s middlweights, it should compete in a nice bowl. If the Spartans trip up Wisconsin or Iowa, it could be New Year’s Day or better.
Home for the holidays if: Injuries ravage the offensive line, lose to either Western Michigan or Florida Atlantic and the team gets tripped up in the middle part of its Big Ten schedule.
Quotable: “I think last year we lost five games we were either leading or right there with five minutes to go in the game. … The margin of error is very, very small here.” — Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio