Jones takes MSU defense master class

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Taiwan Jones is a sociology major at Michigan State, but the senior's toughest course this spring might be his switch to middle linebacker.

"I feel like I'm taking another class right now," he told ESPN.com.

This isn't 100-level stuff, either. It's more like graduate or post-doctorate work, taught by professor Pat Narduzzi and building on the groundbreaking thesis of former ace pupil Max Bullough.

Jones is no stranger to the Spartans' defensive scheme. He has started 17 games at weakside linebacker, including 13 times last season, when he finished with 67 tackles.

But now he takes over in the middle, the position that Bullough so expertly commanded by Bullough the past three seasons. Narduzzi often called Bullough his "computer" on defense, because Bullough knew where every player was supposed to be and could serve as a coach on the field.

Michigan State is hoping Jones can eventually have all that information at his fingertips and lead the same way.

"Everybody's depending on you," Jones said. "You're that guy. I'm not nervous about it, but I feel a little bit of pressure. But pressure makes champions, I feel like."

Physically, the New Baltimore, Mich., native looks the part. Head coach Mark Dantonio described the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder as "a thumper." Narduzzi said Jones didn't quite fit the mold of a weakside linebacker in his system, but that was the best place to get him on the field the past couple of seasons because of veterans such as Bullough and Denicos Allen.

"He's a more physical type of guy to begin with, so I think he brings a physical style in the box," Narduzzi said. "He should be a little more at home there."

The Spartans have little doubt that Jones can make plays. It's that intricate knowledge of the system that's a work in progress. Jones said he's spending a lot of extra time in the film room with linebackers coach Mike Tressel and trying his best to translate what he sees from film study and meetings onto the field early on this spring.

"I know the defense," he said, "but it's the other things I have to know better. I have to know when to check into things, when to put the defensive linemen into stunts, stuff like that.

"Most importantly, it's leadership. It's guys knowing they can depend on me, that I've got their back and that I'll never put us in the wrong position. Max never put us in the wrong position. I'm trying to have the utmost confidence so they can have confidence in me to lead them."

Jones has little choice but to lead because he's the only returning starter at linebacker with both Bullough and Allen gone, along with Rose Bowl defensive MVP Kyler Elsworth. Michigan State is counting on juniors Darien Harris and Ed Davis stepping forward, as well as sophomore Riley Bullough and redshirt freshmen Jon Reschke and Shane Jones. Dantonio said when the team put the pads on for the first time this spring on Saturday, "We didn't look the same at linebacker."

Narduzzi's scheme depends on linebackers being able to play effectively against both the run and the pass, so the position has to maintain its high standards in order for the Spartans to reach their goals.

It all starts with Jones. Narduzzi said he won't know until the end of fall preseason practice whether Jones is truly ready to bring all the things to the table that Bullough did. But he already has seen small improvements in his new middle linebacker during the first few practices of the spring.

"We're going to make him a better football player because we're going to make him smarter," Narduzzi said.

Sounds like Jones has a lot more homework ahead of him in this class.