For junior linebacker Reakwon Jones, everything changed after Indiana saw its season end to Purdue a year ago.
In 2017, Jones wasn’t confident. His role was understandably limited. Jones played sparingly behind two All-Americans in Tegray Scales and Chris Covington -- appearing in ten games but making only seven tackles.
Knowing that both Scales and Covington were graduating and heading to the NFL, Jones got to work immediately after the Boilermakers reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket in a 31-24 win that spoiled Indiana’s goal for a third consecutive bowl appearance. He knew Indiana needed to replace its linebackers, and head coach Tom Allen challenged him to take the next step.
“He never had to say anything directly to me,” Jones said. “I knew as soon as that Purdue game was over, it was a challenge to find the next great linebacker here at Indiana. Is he in this room already or do we have to go get him? I felt that challenge. He said that we had to replace a lot on defense and I just took it and ran with it. After that game, during Christmas break, I worked my butt off to grow and get better.”
Jones isn’t a new face in Bloomington. In fact, Allen said Monday that he re-watched IU’s game against Ball State in 2016, where Jones played only four or five snaps. After committing to Indiana as a 3-star recruit from Florida, this is his fourth season with the Hoosiers. But he redshirted as a true freshman in 2015 and played special teams a year later. Last season, he was in the rotation as a backup. Now, however, he’s filling the shoes of all-time greats in Scales and Covington.
Allen thought he could have been better since he arrived, even as recent as the season opener against Florida International.
“Tegray is gone now,” Allen said of his conversations with Jones. “You've been sitting in his shadows for a couple seasons and now you have to rise up and meet that challenge and he's responded. He had a great spring and really gained a lot of confidence and but didn't really play well week one. We challenged him about that. I thought he was a much better player in week two than he was week one. The kind of player that I saw this spring.”
In Saturday’s 20-16 win against Virginia, Allen chose Jones to spy and shadow dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins -- who ran for 123 yards against the Hoosiers after sprinting for 108 more against Richmond. Those yardage comparisons do not tell the whole story, as the adverse weather conditions forced Perkins to keep the ball more often on Saturday. Jones tallied five tackles, including one for loss, in his best game to date in an IU uniform.
At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Jones is an ideal size for a college linebacker. His speed, he says, has increased by at least two steps since Indiana implemented its new program in the offseason. Linebacker was arguably Indiana’s biggest question mark in the summer, and two games through, it’s been holding up. But life in the Big Ten East is daunting, and prolific offenses will have opportunities to exploit a developing Indiana defense. It must continue to improve, as Brian Lewerke, L.J. Scott, and Michigan State visit town in two weeks.
“My mindset,” Jones said of what has changed for him. “I gained a lot of confidence as spring went on. Just doing my job and executing this defense. Being able to talk to players and players actually being able to look at me like a leader. I took it and ran with it. That’s something I lacked in my first few years here. Gaining it back has been big and I just feel like me again.”
Updates from Media Monday
- First things first, there remains no update from Indiana on the indefinite suspension of starting running back Morgan Ellison. Allen said he meets with Ellison weekly and helps him through the process. He said "it's been going really good," but Ellison is still suspended from team activities. Allen has mentioned Ellison in passing numerous times this week when referring to Stevie Scott, so it's not like Ellison is considered off the team. Only ten games remain.
- Let's talk quarterbacks! Allen said Monday that the Hoosiers planned for freshman Mike Penix to play on Saturday against Virginia, but with strong winds and heavy rain, Indiana felt more comfortable with Peyton Ramsey playing the entire game. The forecast looks ideal for Saturday vs. Ball State, so I'd expect Penix to see some time -- depending on how the game goes, of course. It appears Indiana wants to use Penix, as long as it comes in a manageable situation.
- Speaking of Ball State, the Cardinals visit Bloomington for a noon kickoff on BTN. Indiana spoke highly of its in-state opponent, mentioning Ball State's impressive 24-16 defeat to No. 8 Notre Dame last week. They are 1-1, and Allen said quarterback Riley Neal is "the best, most complete quarterback we have faced." I would agree with that. The Hoosiers are currently favored by 14 points, and rose to 44th (from 57th) in this week's S&P Rankings. Ball State is 90th, but IU is taking the Cardinals very seriously: “They're a good defense, sound at what they do," Ramsey said. "They played really really well against Notre Dame, I got a chance to watch that. They’re a good defense, they’re going to be ready to get after it."