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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Like many defensive coordinators, Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi is spending spring ball shuffling the deck.
Fortunately for Narduzzi, he has college football's version of a wild card.
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|Greg Jones led the Spartans in tackles as both a freshman and a sophomore.|
Spartans junior Greg Jones is the type of player who excels just about anywhere he lines up on defense. This spring he's taking reps at middle linebacker, outside linebacker and even rush end.
"Depending on the down and distance and the package, he'll be all over the place," Narduzzi said. "We really don't want people to know where that guy is, and he's smart enough that we can almost put him anywhere."
And to think, the prospect of switching positions was a main reason why top-level programs stayed away from Jones during recruiting.
He played defensive end for most of his high school career at Cincinnati powerhouse Archbishop Moeller, switching to linebacker for his senior season. Jones can be found in recruiting databases as both a linebacker and a defensive end.
"Converting to linebacker, a lot of guys don't make a clean transition," Jones said. "That was the big thing. Ohio State or whoever just didn't want to take that chance, and I was perfectly fine with that."
Not only did Jones make a spotless transition at Michigan State, but he has become one of the Big Ten's top linebackers. He led the Spartans in tackles as both a freshman (78) and a sophomore (127), and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches last year after finishing third in the league in tackles and ninth in tackles for loss (14.5).
Michigan State returns eight starters from a defense after a 9-4 season, and Jones is the linchpin.
"He's a smart football player," Narduzzi said. "His freshman year, he didn't do a lot of things right. Last year, he did a lot of things right. And right now, he's doing almost everything right."
Jones had no visions of playing as much as he did in 2007, when he started seven games at strongside linebacker and became the first Spartans true freshman to lead the team in tackles since Dan Bass in 1976. He spent part of last spring working at middle linebacker but moved back to the strong side for the start of the season.
After starting five of Michigan State's final seven contests at "mike" linebacker, Jones is spending spring ball in the middle, where Narduzzi expects him to start. Jones has always set an example with his consistent production -- he recorded 10 or more tackles in the final seven games last fall -- but being the quarterback of the defense presents unique challenges.
"It's huge, man," Jones said, "because when you get in there and get in the huddle, you've got to talk to the guys and get guys ready. And we've got a lot of attitudes. Everybody has their different type of focus, and you've got to get everybody on one page. I even look at myself, too. It's hard to control myself when I want to get back at somebody or just make a play.
"Before every scrimmage and after every scrimmage, we say, 'Stick together.' That's what makes us a better defense."
Jones might not be the chattiest player on Michigan State's defense, but Narduzzi isn't concerned about his ability to lead the unit.
"What was that old commercial, E.F. Hutton? When he talks, people listen," Narduzzi said. "When Greg Jones talks, people listen."
Jones has been Michigan State's most productive tackler, but his primary directive isn't to clean up plays that teammates can't make. He's in there to change the game, and often blitzes from both the middle linebacker and strongside linebacker spots.
His playmaking ability could earn him more time this season as a stand-up rush end on obvious passing situations. The 6-foot-1 Jones added 10 pounds during the offseason and checked in this spring at around 225 to 230 pounds.
"He's probably our best edge-rusher because he gets off the ball," Narduzzi said. "He's got great speed and he understands how to use his body."
Narduzzi recognized Jones' athleticism and instincts in recruiting, but at that time, the Spartans' current coaching staff had little chance of luring the linebacker-end. They were still at Cincinnati, and Jones had committed to play for Minnesota.
But when Minnesota fired head coach Glen Mason, Jones decommitted and re-opened his recruitment. By that time, Michigan State had hired Cincinnati's Mark Dantonio as head coach, and Dantonio brought along his staff from the Bearcats, including Narduzzi and linebackers coach Mike Tressel.
Jones had considered both Michigan State and Cincinnati before picking Minnesota, and his decision became easy when Dantonio landed in East Lansing.
"It was kind of funny because Mike Tressel's brother [Luke] was a coach at Minnesota," Narduzzi said, "so it was like beating your brother for a player."
Not just any player. One who seemingly can do it all.
"He's smart enough to obviously pick up the scheme," Narduzzi said. "He's instinctive enough to just find the football, whether he lines up right or wrong. And he's athletic enough to make all the plays you want.
"He's just a great football player."