by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
That’s been Pat Fitzgerald’s advice for redshirt freshman outside linebacker Joseph Jones all spring, as Jones makes the switch from safety to linebacker.
“My issue is, I have a lot of speed, but going against the running backs and the linemen, I kind of tend to hesitate and stop my feet,” Jones said. “’Just kind of go and work up field, and if you can’t get around him the first time, make a counter-move and get back.’ So use your speed in the beginning more than trying to just be aggressive.”
Jones has all the tools to be a solid linebacker, and his speed, in particular, is an asset. However, he’s used to playing safety, so the transition has been been difficult at times.
“In the beginning it was a little rough, just getting used to the speed of things, being five years away from the ball instead of 10, 12 yards, and obviously, being a little more aggressive,” Jones said.
“You don’t have a much time to react to stuff as you do at safety, so that was a big thing at the beginning. I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I’ve just kind of got to get a little bit more aggressive —not reading as much, but more reacting to the plays — but I’m getting a lot better at it.”
The safety to linebacker switch isn’t new for Northwestern. In fact, Fitzgerald has said that NU likes to “bring in big safeties who can play linebacker.” Redshirt freshman Eric Wilson did the same thing, and current safety Jimmy Hall can also play outside linebacker when needed.
Those players, including Jones, already have the skill set needed to play linebacker. Now it’s just about teaching them the ins and outs of their new position. The biggest thing to teach Jones: aggressiveness.
“It’s just a habit,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what we’re doing through all these repetitions, is creating habits. So yeah, there’s no question that — you guys have seen the movie What About Bob, right? It’s baby steps. It’s one step at a time in the progression of confidence at this level.”
But in addition to a growing confidence, Jones also needed to put on weight to successfully make the move from safety to linebacker. Fitzgerald didn’t want Jones to put on too much weight, since “his asset is his athleticism,” but he’s made steady gains during his redshirt year.
“I think all of our guys just need to continue to get bigger, faster and stronger, and he’s one of those guys that are coming out of their redshirt year that are close to where they need to be, (but) not quite there yet,” Fitzgerald said.
According to Jones, he’s just about there.
“I’m good where I’m at now — 220 at the moment,” he said. “By season-time, maybe 225 at the most, but 220, I like it now, so I don’t get too big and lose that speed that I have right now, so I’m liking where I’m at now.”
Jones will certainly have some adjusting to do once he hits the playing field. After all, he’s never played in a college game and played “maybe 10 snaps” at linebacker in high school. However, he has a very good chance to break the two-deeps.
Chi Chi Ariguzo is a lock to start at outside linebacker, and the other starting spot will go to either Drew Smith or Collin Ellis at the beginning of the season. But Jones has a good shot to claim that No. 4 linebacker spot, and his aspirations are for something even higher than that.
“I’m hoping to obviously earn a spot at linebacker — second string, maybe even work my way up to the top and start,” Jones said. “But right now, my goal is to focus, get better at the game and become more aggressive.”