Through the trying journey of college football walk-on, Greg Jones is still happy to be in a Rutgers uniform.
But now, he takes a bigger step up.
Jones, a fifth-year senior who entered the program last summer, maintained his spot on the updated Monday depth chart as the starter over Najee Clayton at the SAM linebacker.
“Obviously, I’ve been through a lot to get to this point where I am right now,” Jones said. “I mean, I’m just happy to be where I am and blessed to have an opportunity to possibly go out and be the starter on Saturday. It’s been fun. The road has been tough, but it’s been fun. I’m happy that it went the way that it did and I’m glad of where I am right now.”
Before the position skips from running back to defensive back last fall, Jones jumped around from school to school.
He signed on to play for Division-II East Stroudsburg in 2012, followed by a year out of football after he transferred to Edison (N.J.) Middlesex County College.
His next stop, a junior-college season spent at Bronx (N.Y.) Monroe College, kept Jones in the game and catapulted him to his dream school.
“My freshman year in high school, I always thought Rutgers was my home,” said Jones, a local product out of Colonia (N.J.) High. “I always wanted to be here. … I knew this was just my home, so I figured just put all of my chips into Rutgers and it worked out that way.”
He spent last year as a reserve and appeared in one game, but he now inherits a greater responsibility as a potential starter while undersized as a 215-pound outside linebacker.
The possibility came when the head coach Chris Ash and his staff wiped the slate clean for every player. After a switch to linebacker, Jones took full advantage of it.
“He’s a really savvy football player, really smart football player,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, who oversees the linebackers. “(Jones) picks up on things quickly, and that’s allowed for his growth to come at the rate that it has. He just gets better all the time. He’s grown more and more comfortable with the position.
“We’ve also used him some in the pass-rushing situations as well, so he has a knack for that. He’s just progressed nicely all the way back from practice one and spring practice through where we are today, so it’s been a gradual continuum but a very positive and solid one and he’s to stay right on track.”
Jones said he was comfortable with his third position switch since last year. As Rutgers looked to replace three starters across the board at linebacker, he embraced the open competition.
“Once the opportunity presented itself and coach moved me there, then I obviously felt that,” Jones said. “But I knew I was going to have to compete with these guys in the group, whether they played or not. They’re tough competitors.
“They work their behinds off every single day just like me, so I knew I was going to have to come in and fight real hard for a position and we all fought together. They helped me out. A lot of them showed me things that I didn’t even know about linebacker because obviously I wasn’t a linebacker, but they showed me a lot and we worked hard to get to this point.”
Despite a lack of experience at the position, Jones said the differences in schemes from last year to now are clear at the SAM.
“I feel like last year, the linebackers that played the SAM position, they didn’t have to cover as much,” Jones said. “We cover a lot now and we’re still physical, we’re still in the box, we play a lot in the box, but we’re more so going to be covering the slots and in zone coverages, over a No. 2 guy, like a fast guy. Usually, they’ll try to put me over a bigger body type like a tight end. But for the most part, I’m going to do a lot more covering than those guys last year.”
Regardless of where Jones lines up, his teammates on the defense believe he can get the job done. That includes fifth-year senior Darius Hamilton, who compared Jones to former Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene.
“Greg’s a baller,” said Hamilton, a three-time captain. “He’s a big-time baller, big-time playmaker. (Jones) hits like I’ve never seen anybody hit besides probably Khaseem (Greene) since I’ve been here. … I know he’s ready. I know he’s been working and putting himself in a position to be a starter right now and I’m sure that’ll follow up on Saturday and I’m sure he’ll do great things in the game for us.”
At 6-foot and 215 pounds, Jones realizes his size alone might not fit the stereotype of a linebacker in the Big Ten.
But his response does.
“I’m tough,” Jones said. “I’m going to punch them in the mouth, every single play. That’s just what I do.”