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September 30, 2010
When Minnesota suffered the greatest collapse in bowl history four years ago, it lost more than a game. The Insight Bowl fiasco of 2006 also cost the Gophers a potential Butkus Award winner.
Two days after Minnesota blew a 31-point, second-half lead in a 44-41 loss to Texas Tech, the Gophers fired coach Glen Mason. That move began the chain of events that caused a three-star prospect from Cincinnati to back out of his commitment to Minnesota and sign with Michigan State instead.
Little did anyone know that Greg Jones would become the nation's best linebacker.
"I was really attracted to [Mason's] coaching staff," Jones recalled as he reflected on his college choice. "I really felt I could learn from them and get better. Obviously it wasn't meant to be."
Jones isn't regretting his decision now. While Minnesota is on a three-game losing streak that has Mason's replacement -- Tim Brewster -- on the hot seat, Michigan State carries an undefeated record into its Big Ten opener Saturday against Wisconsin.
Michigan State's chances of remaining unbeaten depend largely on whether Jones can help contain a potent Badgers rushing attack that features All-America candidate John Clay running behind one of the nation's best offensive lines. It's the kind of matchup that Jones savors.
"As a linebacker, it defines you," Jones said. "This is a very tough team. I feel it's two hard-nosed teams playing. It's really going to test us."
These types of games helped persuade Jones to return to school for his senior season. Jones, who ranks second among all active FBS players with 392 career tackles, earned consensus All-America honors last season. He likely would have been drafted in the first two rounds had he chosen to leave school after his junior year.
"It was incredibly, incredibly difficult," Jones said. "I felt like I went back and forth a zillion times."
Jones' decision to stay should improve his draft stock. He currently is rated as the No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in the 2011 draft class by the website nfldraftscout.com, though it's not a certainty he will go in the first round.
NFL teams lately have moved away from taking inside linebackers in the first round. Alabama's Rolando McClain, who went to the Oakland Raiders with the eighth overall pick, was the only inside linebacker taken in the opening round of the 2010 draft. The Atlanta Falcons took Sean Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick, but the former Missouri star was seen as more of an outside linebacker prospect.
While that recent trend could hurt Jones' draft stock, his consistent production as a four-year starter makes him a blue-chip prospect.
"I think he's a special player," said Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com. "I don't think there's any question about his consistency and the level of competition he's faced throughout his career. I think he's among the safest prospects in this entire draft, regardless of position."
Jones commands such respect across the Big Ten that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has encouraged his own players to watch film of Jones.
"He's got great intangibles," Bielema said. "As a linebackers coach for a number of years, I always used to talk about vision. Certain guys can see tings out of the corner of their eyes and see things that aren't in a normal linebacker's vision. Ever since I've been watching him, he's got that."
Jones' potential was evident to his high school coach at Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller. Bob Crable played at Notre Dame from 1976-81 and remains the Fighting Irish's leading career tackler since the school began keeping track of the statistic in 1956. He knows a good linebacker when he sees one.
After Jones finished his sophomore year at Moeller, Crable moved him from a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme to a linebacker in a 3-3-5 system. Crable hasn't been surprised by anything that Jones has accomplished since.
"He'll outwork everyone," Crable said. "He's as hard a worker as I've ever been involved with in terms of coaching kids in football. He had some good instincts. I think the coaches [at Michigan State] have been able to develop his instincts better, but he had good ball instincts.
"What you can't coach and teach is speed, and Greg always had that explosiveness that allows him the ability to compete at the highest level. That's just God-given."
The speed may have been God-given, but Jones said he learned the work ethic from his parents. His mother, Beverly, is a triage nurse who has worked in health care for more than three decades. His father, also named Greg, has worked as a bartender, a waiter and plenty of other jobs in the food and beverage business. Jones saw the way they went about their workday, and he has brought that same business-like approach to the football field.
"They taught me all about hard work," Jones said. "My dad gets up early in the morning and comes home late at night. My mom works tough hours in health care. That's how I learned how to deal with people and how to manage tough situations, even when a lot is called upon you."
Although this marks Jones' second season as a team captain, he feels more responsibility as a senior.
"Being a captain as a junior isn't the same as being a captain as a senior," Jones said. "You've been there longer. You have more say. You've been around the block a little more."
His leadership has been apparent in recent weeks. Michigan State had every reason to suffer a letdown last week against FCS member Northern Colorado. The Spartans were coming off a thrilling overtime victory over Notre Dame that was decided by a fake field goal on the final play. The Wisconsin game was only a week away. And if that weren't enough, Michigan State had to play the game without coach Mark Dantonio, who suffered a heart attack shortly after the Notre Dame game. But the Spartans cruised past Northern Colorado behind a big game from Jones, who had the first two interceptions of his career and a forced fumble.
"He's done an outstanding job," said Dantonio, who will coach from the press box this week. "He's an outstanding person. He's an extremely humble person, quiet by nature, but our players look to him for leadership in terms of how he does things. He's not afraid to speak up when [it] is needed."
Jones' relationship with Dantonio helped bring him to Michigan State. Dantonio was coaching at Cincinnati when Jones began the recruiting process. When he committed to Minnesota, Cincinnati was his second choice. By the time Minnesota fired Mason and Jones re-opened his recruitment, Michigan State had hired Dantonio away from Cincinnati. Jones suddenly had the opportunity to remain in the Big Ten while also playing for Dantonio. It was an opportunity he couldn't turn down.
Now he can't imagine a better situation. He's a front-runner for the Butkus Award. And his team's undefeated.
Jones might not have taken the most direct route to Michigan State, but he believes he eventually reached the proper destination.
"I believe it was just divine intervention," Beverly Jones said.