Sep 4, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - There's a tendency to mispronounce Jairus Jones' first name as if a typographical error on his birth certificate has gone uncorrected all these years.
For future reference, it's JARE-us not Jare-EE-uhs.
"It's a name in the Bible," Jones said. "My mom wanted something different, like my brother is Joshua and my sister is Jasmine. It's just a name that caught her eye when she was younger."
As it turns out, it couldn't have been a more appropriate choice by Sheila Perry-Jones. The miracle of Jesus bringing Jairus' dead daughter back to life is interpreted as an example of how faith exists in seemingly hopeless situations.
Jones' faith in himself, and his Michigan State coaches' and teammates' belief in him, was rewarded when he intercepted his first two career passes, including one he lateraled after a 3-yard return to Kurtis Drummond for a combined 24-yard touchdown, in the 26-13 season-opening victory against Western Michigan.
It was Jones' first assignment in his new position of outside linebacker after dealing with career-threatening injuries the previous two seasons.
"I'm just happy I could finally make plays," said Jones. "I've been hurt for awhile and missed a lot of games since I've been here. It was a good thing to help out the team."
Defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett was thrilled to see one of his former protégés break MSU's streak of 13 games without scoring a defensive touchdown. The dry spell started in the third quarter of the 2012 Outback Bowl after cornerback Darqueze Dennard returned an interception for a 38-yard score against Georgia.
"Everybody wouldn't have done what he did, first of all getting the interceptions and then looking to toss it to a guy," Barnett said. "The funny think about it is he and Kurtis were competing last year to play. He started and then Kurtis would come in for him. And then he makes the pick and tosses to Kurt, so I thought that was awesome - that's what I was fired up about.
"I knew when he went down there he would have a great understanding of what to do and how to play linebacker, and it's just showing itself now because he is a smart football player."
Jones, who started out at strong safety as a red-shirt freshman in 2010, tore an Achilles tendon in the second-to-last spring practice of 2011. He came back from that injury, which used to be a death knell for sports careers, after missing the first eight games of his red-shirt sophomore season to play in the final six.
Last season, Jones started the first six games at free safety only to miss the final six of the regular season because of a knee injury. His latest recovery began when he retuned to play against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
"You hit rock-bottom when you get hurt a second time for a considerable amount of time," said Jones, whose father, James, played fullback for the Detroit Lions. "I never thought it was too hard, but there was a point when I asked, `Should I keep playing?' "
Jones persevered, but admitted he couldn't have done it alone.
"It was really just using my support system," he said. "My mom, my brother, my sister, and my dad, and my teammates, and pretty much using them as an anchor so I didn't fall off. Luckily, I had that support system."
Jones demonstrated an amazing nose for the ball in his limited number of appearances prior to this season. Against Iowa in 2011, he forced a fumble at the 8-yard line that preserved MSU's first victory in Iowa City since 1989. Last season, he caused a fumble against Ohio State and recovered one against Eastern Michigan.
To get his playmaking ability on the field in conjunction with considerable depth in the secondary, the coaches approached him about switching to linebacker last spring. Jones' coverage skills are especially valuable against pass-oriented spread formations and he's sharing the position with Taiwan Jones (no relation), who's more of a run-stopper.
"Before spring started they were like `How would you feel (about moving)?' " Jones recalled. "And I was like, `Man, whatever I can do to get on the field to make some plays, I'm happy to do it.' "
Jones is almost instinctive by design. The pitch to Drummond, for example, appeared to be completely spontaneous. However, he said he'd been running that play in his mind since last year's preseason camp.
"I told everybody that I was the only DB (defensive back) room that didn't have a pick who had some playing time," Jones said. "So I was like, `When I get my first pick, I'm pitching it.' I was just joking around, but it happened like that."
It was all just a matter of finding a niche for Jones, who head coach Mark Dantonio said was a highly touted recruit at Tampa Wharton High School, and letting him fill it.
"He makes plays," Dantonio said. "He'll make plays on special teams. He'll make plays on defense, and he's a smart football player and he's tough. He's very active. He's had all different kinds of things that have gone on with him from an injury standpoint..., but this guy really had a great spring and put himself in a position to play. I think you saw that Friday night."
Jones is a tweener, neither fish nor fowl, neither linebacker nor defensive back.
"I'm just trying to be more physical," he said. "Instead of going against 240-pound tight ends, I'm going against 300-pound linemen. Instead of 180-pound receivers, I'm taking on 320-pound linemen. That's been the biggest difference.
"It's just a different mind-set. You don't want those big guys to punk you around. It's fun. You get to make more plays and you're around the action. At safety, you have to let the action come to you, but at linebacker you're closer to the ball and you can make more tackles and make more plays. I like to joke around and said I'm a hybrid."
Jones is a full-fledged member of both worlds.
"Jairus has been one of us since the beginning," said middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough. "When you come in and make plays like he did on Friday, you accept someone really quick."
Jones turned down a scholarship offer from his hometown college, South Florida, which the Spartans will host on Saturday.
"I had a lot of teammates and friends play for them, but they don't play there anymore," Jones said. "In a way (it will be special), but they're a fairly new team. They haven't been around as long as a Michigan State has been or like a Florida, somebody that has more significance to me if I was to play a team from down South.
"But, it is from Tampa so everybody will be watching us down there."