With new and veteran middle linebackers communication is the key
August 09, 2019
In the heart of South Carolina’s defense, the middle linebacker, or “Mike,” is the equivalent of the quarterback, calling out plays and organizing teammates.
But so far in training camp, the Gamecocks have two starting Mikes — there’s sophomore Ernest Jones, who has impressed coaches and vaulted himself into contention for a starting spot, and senior T.J. Brunson, who played in the middle the past two years but has moved over to the weakside to make room for Jones. “It’s been fun,” Jones said. “You know, it kind of gets confusing at times, because me being the Mike and him usually being the Mike and being the one that’s talking, it’s like we’re both talking at the same time. So everybody’s getting double communicated. It’s fun. It’s fun playing with him.”
In the age of up-tempo offenses like the one coach Will Muschamp and coordinator Bryan McClendon run at USC, having two vocal leaders on the field can be a blessing for the younger linebacker. “Sometimes you don’t line up until maybe a half a second before the ball is snapped. So you have to think quick,” Jones said. “At times, you know, you’re looking over to the sideline. And as you’re looking to the sideline, you’re looking back and forth, and being out there with T.J., he’s able to see the calls as well. As he’s watching what the signal is and what the call is from (coordinator Travaris Robinson), I’m scanning the field, seeing where the tight ends are, where everybody else is. So being out there with him is definitely fun, because we’re able to over communicate, get everybody right.”
That being said, when he’s playing Mike, Jones takes pride in being the one responsible for communicating and organizing the defensive schemes and plays. “It’s my responsibility to make sure everything’s right. And when something goes wrong, it falls back on me. No matter if I’m near the play or not near the play, I take responsibility for that. That’s just what comes with the territory,” Jones said. “So you gotta love playing Mike here, everything’s on you. You love that. You kind of get selfish when somebody else is making a call. You don’t want that, you want to control everything.” Controlling communication could be key for a unit that struggled mightily in 2018, letting opposing offenses run for an average 199.5 yards per game, second worst in the SEC.
“Communication was big. At times, we would not communicate enough or over communicate and be saying the wrong thing,” Jones said. “So I definitely think we’ve improved as a group on that. You can definitely tell and see that we’re more comfortable out there.” And Jones’ coaches are more comfortable with him. Linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler said his confidence in Jones is “through the roof,” adding that if South Carolina had a game tomorrow, he would be in the starting lineup. After leaning heavily on Brunson last year to the tune of “800, 900 snaps,” Hutzler told the veteran he wouldn’t need to do that much again this season. So far, Jones is helping back that promise up. “Ernest has stepped up, man. He’s had a great spring. And I’m excited, man,” Hutzler said.