Mike Jones Jr. noticed something missing before anyone else. LSU’s defense was scheduled to line up against a team of pseudo-scouts in practice last Saturday, but the offensive lineup in front of him didn’t have enough players.
“Hey,” Jones shouted pointing to the blank space, “we need another receiver!”
A manager quickly took over and Jones relayed the defensive call to the rest of his teammates. They chased after the snap, working on their plays against the air, then Jones returned to midfield to wait for the next call.
It’s way too early in the spring to name a starter at any position, but Jones has made a name for himself at middle linebacker. The fifth-year junior is experienced and he’s taken on a needed voice role in LSU’s defense, often leading other players and providing a heightened sense of urgency in practice.
“You need a communicator in the middle of your defense,” coach Brian Kelly said. ” He does that. He has all the skills. He has experience. So far it’s been a good transition for us with him in the middle.
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LSU needed someone to step in at inside linebacker after the departure of leading tackle Damone Clark. Jones, who was traded from Clemson last summer to play inside, makes a logical choice. He appeared in 42 games, and his emergence at the end of the 2021 season coincided with a jump in LSU’s defense.
It helps that Jones feels more comfortable now. He played a hybrid nickel/linebacker position at Clemson, and when he was traded, he needed time to adjust. Inside linebackers need to absorb and then clear blocks from offensive linemen, something Jones hasn’t done as much at Clemson.
The footwork was different. The placement of the hands has changed. Even when Jones started to settle down during the season, he had to think about his technique. He can react now.
“It just became natural,” Jones said.
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Jones played better with more experience last year, and LSU began using him as an outside linebacker, often sending him on blitzes off the edge. Jones finished with 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two quarterback rushes.
Once LSU’s new coaching staff arrived, he addressed the inside linebacker, who looked thin with senior Micah Baskerville possibly heading to the NFL. The team convinced Baskerville to stay, added West Weeks and Kolbe Fields transfers and signed two rookies, including five-star Harold Perkins.
So far, Baskerville hasn’t played much in open periods, replaced by budding second Greg Penn III at weakside inside linebacker. Jones claimed the other spot through seven practices as he continues to learn. Defensive coordinator Matt House taught him more about clearing blocks.
“Now I know there are different ways to do it, different ways to put your body in the best position to be successful,” Jones said. “When you get guys you have to get rid of. I learned a lot and I always try to improve myself every day.
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House expects Jones to come in at center linebacker. Jones likes to speak naturally, but it’s his responsibility to get his teammates in the right spot, make calls and relay adjustments. His voice must carry so that everyone can hear him, and he must earn the respect of his teammates so that they listen to him.
“He steps into that role and he steps up, like he’s supposed to,” junior cornerback Jordan Toles said. “He’s trying to be that leader, and we’re going to get a better understanding of how Mike communicates with us. I think it will be a good situation as we move forward.
It hasn’t been perfect, but spring training is designed to correct mistakes. During one visit, Jones said, his communication was cut off. He then spoke to House, wondering exactly what his new coach wanted to hear. Once he understood the expectations, Jones said he could meet them.
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“I wouldn’t say it’s that much of me trying to be a vocal leader,” Jones said. “I try to do my job as best I can.”
There is a sense of urgency behind Jones’ words. He understands that he has entered the second half of his university career and that he must play well if he wants to justify the reason for his transfer. He doesn’t have as much time to prove he can handle the inside linebacker.
“I’m not going to show it,” Jones said. “I’m not going to say it. But deep down I know it’s my fifth year. I am in the background. Other than that, I try to run my job every day and not think about it.