Michigan State linebacker will be tough to shake off

The Illinois offense doesn’t have to look at the numbers to understand Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones’ aptitude of bringing down the ball carrier. In fact, it doesn’t have to look much further than the game tape.

“He’s all over the film,” Illinois junior offensive tackle Jeff Allen said. “He’s a fast kid.”

Illinois will get a first-hand look Saturday at the senior middle linebacker in the midst of his fourth season as a starter on the Spartan defense. His 405 career tackles entering Saturday’s game is the fourth-most in Michigan State history and ranks second among active players.

“He just flies to the ball,” Illinois freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “He always seems like he’s always around the ball. He plays over the top of his pads all the time. He never gets knocked around too bad.”

Jones spends most of his time in the opposing offensive backfield as part of an aggressive Michigan State front seven. Jones’ 41.5 career tackles for loss is the third most in Michigan State history and is sixth among active players.

“He’s a good football player,” Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “He plays middle linebacker most of the time, but on third downs, they line him up outside and rush him off the edge.”

And with his pass rushing ability well-documented, Scheelhaase said he was surprised to see on tape how well Jones defended against the pass.

“One thing I didn’t know until I watched him on film this week was how good he is in pass coverage,” Scheelhaase said. “He gets good depth on his drops, and when he gets his hands on the ball, he can create some plays.”

After a 2009 season in which he totaled 154 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks, the accolades came pouring in for Jones.

He was a consensus First-Team All-American and was named both the 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and 2010 Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

“He’s definitely doing a lot of things right, and he has been for a while,” Scheelhaase said. “He seems like he’s been playing at Michigan State forever.”

Saturday will be Jones’ 45th career start for the Spartans, but he nearly could have made those starts for a different Big Ten team.

Jones, a native of Cincinnati, first committed to play for Glenn Mason at Minnesota during his senior year of high school. But after the Gophers squandered a 35-7 halftime lead to lose 44-41 to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl, Minnesota fired Mason and Jones was released from his commitment.

Finding himself back on the recruiting market, Jones became reconnected with Mark Dantonio, who recruited him while head coach of Cincinnati, but was hired by Michigan State before the 2007 season.

“I had a great relationship with Coach Dantonio when he was at Cincinnati, and it was one of those things there it could have been rough because I turned him down,” Jones said. “And he could have turned me down when I said that I wanted to come to Michigan State. Thank God he didn’t.”

Jones was mostly recruited by smaller, non-BCS programs such as Air Force, Marshall, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio), while Michigan State and Minnesota were the only Big Ten teams to offer Jones a scholarship. A glaring omission came from in-state powerhouse Ohio State, which never even contacted Jones.

“I was the 16th-ranked player in the state, and I think at the time, they got all top-10 players from the state,” Jones said. “They’ve been winning, and they did what they thought was best.”

Jones mostly played defensive end during his sophomore and junior years of high school before moving to linebacker his senior season.

“If you think about it, I was a D-end and had only played linebacker for one year in high school, and I was competing with guys that had played linebacker all four years in high school,” Jones said. “It was one of the best things to happen to me because it helped me tremendously with my pass rush abilities.”

Entering preseason training camp the summer before his freshman year, Jones approached Dantonio for an opportunity to prove himself. Jones received a one-word answer ­— practice.

“From then on, I took practice very, very seriously,” Jones said. “I get ready now for practice like it’s a game.”

And four years and several hundred tackles later, Jones said practice still remains a time for him to prove himself.

“I go out there and try to win the respect of my teammates,” Jones said. “I want them to believe in me because I think that’s what matters most. When things get tough, I want them to depend on me.”