Jones making plays, earning trust

He mirrored every move, every quick step and acceleration. In a driving rain, against a shifty quarterback, Reakwon Jones was the spy that Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins couldn’t shake.

This was high responsibility for Jones, a redshirt junior linebacker and newly-minted starter, who was tasked with keeping an elusive playmaker in front of him. And he did so with aplomb.

One play, in particular, on Saturday illustrated both the poise with which Jones worked and how far he’s come in a year’s time. With Virginia trailing by four points at the IU 47-yard line midway through the third quarter, Jones sniffed out Perkins when the UVA quarterback might have otherwise found an open field. Jones, standing 10 yards away, waited for Perkins to take the shotgun snap and make his next move. When Perkins cut right, Jones did, too, sprinting to stuff the scrambler before he could cross the line of scrimmage.

“Last year,” Jones said, “I can’t tell you if I’d have made that play or not.”

Indeed, there is plenty that is different for Jones this season, from his starting job to the high expectations placed upon him and, perhaps most importantly, the confidence Jones has in himself to deliver.

Adequately replacing former All-American linebacker Tegray Scales was among IU coach Tom Allen’s foremost objectives this off-season. If the second game of the regular season is any harbinger, Jones has the ability to do the job.

Jones’ place in the box score wasn’t eye-popping — he collected five tackles, including three solo stops and a tackle for loss. But make no mistake that the Hoosiers’ Defensive Player of the Week was a primary reason why much of Perkins’ night in the backfield turned up empty results, fortifying Allen’s hope that this could be a season of crucial progress for Jones.

“I got on him a year ago,” Allen said. “I felt like Tegray had to play so many snaps because he didn’t rise up and he didn’t put himself in position for me to trust him to play.”

Since the end of last season, Jones made it his mission to change Allen’s view.

When Scales and fellow standout linebacker Chris Covington graduated after the 2017 campaign, Allen spoke in blunt terms to his linebackers. He wouldn’t settle for merely decent play at that position in 2018.

No, he needed much more. That’s been a consistent theme since Allen arrived as defensive coordinator in 2016, and the IU coach was determined to make sure his next wave of linebackers understood.

“I knew, as soon as that Purdue game was over, it was a challenge to find who was going to be that next good/great linebacker here at Indiana,” Jones said. “Is he in this room already, or do we have to go get him?

“I felt that challenge. I know he said we had to replace a lot on defense, and I just took it around with me. After that game, that Christmas break, I just worked my butt off to continue to grow, continue to get better, bigger, stronger and faster, as much as I could.”

Jones’ development became apparent by April, when his standout play earned him high praise from Allen. The IU coach was so impressed by the new and improved Jones that Allen named him one of Indiana’s most valuable players for spring practice. This, after Jones totaled only nine tackles across his first 21 games in college.

For Jones, there was certainly a physical component to his improvement. He credits IU’s new strength and conditioning staff for helping him meet tangible goals. But just as critical were the hidden areas — the mental aspects of the game and anticipating plays before they happen.

He applied the techniques Scales taught him about how to break down film in order to feel an extra step faster on the field. And, once he was out there, he started building the confidence that he’s riding today.

“(The difference is) the confidence that Coach Allen enabled him to have and helped him to understand that this is your shot, this is your opportunity. Make the most of it,” linebacker Dameon Willis said. “I really think the confidence that’s really important for an athlete to have, he was able to gain that and use that and continue to roll on.”

Scales played a big role in that regard, leaving his former understudy with some valuable wisdom ahead of this season.

“He told me, ‘When you go out there, don’t think about nothing, don’t worry about nothing, trust in your abilities – you’re here for a reason,’” Jones said. “That’s something that always echoes inside my head before I go out and play. I’m here for a reason. I’m not here for no reason. I can play.”

That was clear against Virginia, especially in the way Jones stepped up and shadowed Perkins’ every move. The Virginia game was eye-opening in that it was similar to the way Jones played throughout the spring and fall camp.

Aggressive and fast.

He didn’t play especially well at Florida International — and few on IU’s defense did — but Week 2 saw Jones rise to meet his coach’s challenge.

This week, against a Ball State offense with talent at the skill positions, Jones wants to back up his best game to date.

And continue to show why he’s a player the Hoosiers can feel comfortable counting on.

“I want to be that guy that teams have to gameplan for,” Jones said. “I want to step into that role.”

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