Football is an amazing thing. For those that really love it, they understand that it is constantly in flux and changing. It was just two seasons ago when the most popular player on the team, LB Chris Norman, was replaced by an up and comer named Taiwan Jones.
Jones is big, strong, and reminds people of former Spartan and NFL star Carl Banks. Coming into the 2014 season (as soon as the Rose Bowl ended), speculation began to run rampant as to who would take over the Spartans heralded QB of the D at middle linebacker.
Because of his size and experience, many assumed it would be OLB Taiwan Jones. It was a natural fit to slide him over from the outside. He started the spring there at the top on the depth chart in the middle. Just as he challenged Norman, now a much heralded junior from one of America’s premier high school football programs is chasing him with his sub 4.4 speed and is even with him heading into the summer grind.
In an exclusive interview with me, MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio made that clear. He said of the Harris vs. Jones battle for the MLB spot that it is “Wide open” and added, “I think we don’t know right now because there needs to be improvement made from the spring. It’s a different position than the outside linebacker position because it’s in the center of things. So there’s different reads, it’s more of a position that by nature of the position, you have to take more command. So you have to know everybody’s alignment, not just what you’re doing. When you’re thinking like that it slows you down. And if you’re slowed down, good things are usually not gonna follow.”
Dantonio went on to say about Harris, “We’re gonna try and transition him (Harris) to the mike linebacker position. I think what we’ve gotta look at is see how he is improved over the course of the summer, by watching film and doing different things, how has he improved, and then watch him early in summer camp. Because I don’t think there’s any question that he was a solid outside backer for us and we don’t want to move him into the frame and have him not be productive. I think we also have other players inside that could possibly play that position that have experience there, Darien Harris being one of them. So the decision just has to be made, but we can flip those guys and be right back to where we were and be solid. I think that’s a decision that I’ll be involved in, but Coach Narduzzi and Coach Tressel will be very, very much involved in.”
Dantonio had his eye on Harris and liked what he saw this off season. Bragging about his speedy star saying, “I really think that Darien Harris has really stepped forward from the leadership standpoint too and should be an excellent player for us.”
Pat Narduzzi is the nation’s premiere defensive coordinator and when I spoke to him exclusively for an upcoming issue of Spartan Nation Magazine he took umbrage with people who think the MLB spot has Jones name on it. “I don’t know where all this ‘Taiwan Jones is the guy’ came from…I think misinterpreted words. But Taiwan’s a great player. He’s got all the ability in the world to do it physically; mentally he’s still got a ways to go to get what we need at that position. It is definitely a wide open position for middle linebacker. Taiwan’s gotta be a starter for us somewhere…we hope it’s in there. But we’re gonna play the three best linebackers.”
When I asked Narduzzi if the blazing speed of Harris could open up some new doors and options if he wins the middle spot, he lit up with a sinister mad scientist mentality. He said, “No question about it. Darien’s a very intelligent player. He can run, he’s physical, he knows the game. Darien could play all three of our positions. He could play all three of them mentally and physically. Darien’s a special player.”
I asked LB Coach Mike Tressel, exclusively again, about how close the job really is to be the Spartans QB of the D and take that MLB spot. He was very frank. “No, it’s real close. There are a lot of guys that are in the battle. What I think…and I’m talking about our linebackers don’t realize…is yes, Max had a super high football IQ, but he also put a lot of extra time into studying our defense and preparing himself. So guys have to recognize that. Taiwan did a good job in the spring, but he doesn’t study football quite like Max does, so he’s stepping up his game there. Darien Harris has a great understanding of the defense. But Taiwan’s body size gives him the advantage in there a little bit.”
Like Dantonio and Narduzzi, Tressel likes lying awake at night seeing visions of Harris and his speed in the middle. That is something that should have opposing QB’s and offensive coordinators seeing nightmares. “There are a lot of things he could do to any quarterback. There’s no doubt about it. The first thing that Darien really recognized about mid-way through spring…and he came into my office and told me…was, ‘Coach, I run a 4.4 but I just don’t think I play at a 4.4.’ Now, I watch film and I think he plays pretty fast, but for him to self-evaluate that he could play even faster, that fired me up. When you’re the middle guy and you can truly, truly show speed sideline to sideline without being out of control, yes that helps us. And then the amount we blitz our mikes, there’s some tools there.”
Right now the battle is too close to call. They would like Jones to win it and he has the advantage with his granite physique and structure. Harris has the advantage mentally and is no slouch physically either. The question with Harris is that he has failed to show a killer instinct at times over a consistent basis.
As one Coach put it, “He lacks that killer vibe.” When asked to explain about the lack of killer vibe in Harris one coach said it this way, “I want to see him attack the job, take the job, make it his and give everything on every snap. Darien is such a nice kid, I want to see him make becoming a great player a priority. Nothing else. No distractions.”
This is a true battle. Both Harris and Jones will start. Both will play. Both are great young men. The question is who will be the Spartans QB of the D when the season snaps. Time in the film room over the next few weeks could be the edge.
When the season starts we will know who wanted it more. Whoever emerges as the starter, will have earned it and that makes it the battle of camp. Jones has the physical, Harris the mental, and now we will see who simply is hungrier to lead the most feared defense in the nation.
It all comes down to want to. In 59 days the Spartans will run out of the tunnel at Spartan Stadium to defend their B1G crown. Darien Harris and Taiwan Jones must decide who will lead the Spartans D. If it was a race, I would say give it to Harris. If it was a boxing match, Taiwan Jones would take it. This isn’t. This is about hunger and toughness, and who emerges will get the golden prize of leading the most talked about defense in college football.
No doubt what they are doing today will impact the race. Who wants it more? We’ll find out in 59 days!