East Lansing — The numbers don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet, but that is only one way to judge Taiwan Jones’ first start at middle linebacker for Michigan State.
The senior had just two tackles, including a half-tackle for a loss in the Spartans’ 45-7 victory over Jacksonville State on Friday. But for the former starter at outside linebacker, determining how well his first start went simply by looking at the numbers wouldn’t be wise.
“You know what, I think he showed pretty solid,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “I know he missed one thing that he probably could have got in the second quarter or so. Overall he was very solid, I think. I will see the tape but I guess I would give him a B right now. Maybe he gets an A when I watch the tape, maybe he gets a C, but it wasn’t a D. I think he played pretty good.”
Replacing Max Bullough was one of the more intriguing story lines of Michigan State’s offseason and it continued into preseason camp. Bullough manned the position for three years and not only was he one of the most productive linebackers in Michigan State history, his understanding of the defense was second to none.
His teammates and coaches often referred to Bullough as a computer, quickly analyzing opposing offenses and shifting his teammates into the proper alignment.
For Jones, the physical ability was never the question. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds with outstanding speed and quickness, he was built for the middle. The question was whether he would be able to come close to matching Bullough’s understanding of the defense.
Friday was his first chance to do so and Jones felt like he took a step in the right direction.
“I felt like it went really well,” Jones said. “Surprisingly I felt no pressure. I felt pretty comfortable and that comes from me studying all summer and me having all camp to do that with the defense.”
His teammates came away from the opener impressed.
“Taiwan got us lined up, he was prepared and made a lot of big plays tonight,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “It just shows that he stepped it up in that leadership role. He was taking it head on instead of backing back and letting other people lead.”
Jones got his first taste of playing in the middle in spring practice and came out knowing he had a long way to go. The result was an offseason full of film work and studying and by the time preseason camp came around, Jones was able to secure the starting spot while being pushed by redshirt freshman Jon Reschke.
“I feel like I can get the guys lined up and in the right spot,” Jones said. “I feel like if we have a bad play, or if we have to face adversity, I can get everyone to calm down and get them to continue playing.”
That ability was tested in the opener by the pace of the Jacksonville State offense, including the first play from scrimmage when the Gamecocks picked up 32 yards on a pass play.
But Jones was able to settle the unit down, forcing a punt before eventually closing the first half giving up only 89 total yards.
“Every single game there’s always going to be adversity,” Jones said. “It’s just how you bounce back from it. I felt like we bounced back really well because the three plays after that we got them off the field.”
With the first test passed, the challenge for Jones and the Michigan State defense gets much tougher next week against Oregon.
“We’ve always looked forward to Oregon,” Jones said. “But we couldn’t surpass this one and as you can see we didn’t look past them. We came out and played them just like we were playing Oregon, which we’re going to prepare hard for.”