EAST LANSING, Mich. – Eric Thatcher Jr. watched as much as he could of Michigan State’s game last Saturday against Wisconsin with added interest. The Pittsburgh assistant director of player development watched most of the first half from his Chapel Hill hotel before leaving with the Panthers for their game against North Carolina.
From his phone while on the bus to the scoreboard at Kenan Memorial Stadium, Thatcher looked for any updates he could find. Those he found weren’t good for the Spartans, 30-6 losers at home to the Badgers. But Thatcher’s attention was more specific.
How did Shane do?
Shane would be Shane Jones, Michigan State’s redshirt junior linebacker who was thrust into the starting lineup due to an injury that sidelined Riley Bullough. Shane would also be Thatcher’s younger brother.
Jones finished with a career-high 6 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss and one-half of a sack. It was the little things most people don’t see that attracted big brother’s attention after Pitt returned home and he was able to watch the game in full on DVR.
It’s those things that Thatcher believes will help Jones succeed whether or not Bullough’s injury keeps him out of the lineup this Saturday at Indiana or beyond.
“I see a guy that can communicate with his teammates,” Thatcher told Landof10.com of his brother. “I saw Shane getting guys lined up, getting adjustments done, and none of teammates turning around and looking at him like ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?’ Those guys were moving, they kept their face to the offense. Not too many times did you see d-linemen or linebackers looking over at the MIKE (middle linebacker) like ‘What the heck is going on?’ They knew what was going on.”
Jones is listed on the first team at MIKE this week ahead of Bullough, whose status has been called “day to day” by head coach Mark Dantonio.
Jones came to Michigan State as a consensus 4-star recruit out of Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School. He helped the Crusaders win the Division I state championship in 2012, the program’s first in 27 years. Things haven’t always gone so smoothly for Jones at Michigan State. He has played in 24 games for the Spartans but the start against Wisconsin was just the second of his career.
He didn’t find out he would be starting last Saturday until right before kickoff, he said.
“It doesn’t leave you much time to think,” Jones said. “You’ve just got to be calm and level-headed about it.”
It doesn’t hurt having an older brother you can confide in for advice, wisdom or just to listen. Thatcher played safety at Pitt from 2004-08. He played twice against Michigan State, starting games in 2006 and 2007 and making a total of 14 tackles with one pass breakup. He has been in the coaching ranks since his playing days ended, including spending one year as a quality control coach with the Buffalo Bills.
“I was just texting him, literally, in the locker room,” Jones said on Tuesday after finishing up practice. “I talk to him every day. He’s my biggest critic, my biggest fan. He’s the reason I am the player I am today, just for him pushing me all throughout high school, all through here. He’s hard on me, harder than most of the coaches are here. Having someone in your corner like that is big and I appreciate him for it.”
How Shane is doing on and off the field is a concern shared not just by big brother but by their mom, Antonia – or Mimi as her sons call her – Shane’s dad Shawn, and Thatcher’s father, Eric Sr. It’s not your typical family dynamic but that is also why it is a source of strength for Jones. This family it tight. There are group chat sessions. The family travels for games as often as possible. Although big brother Eric is too busy with Pitt’s season going on to make it to a game, he is just a phone call away.
“Obviously things didn’t work out with my mom and Shawn, and likewise with my dad, but we are one big family,” Thatcher said. “If my grandma is having a cookout everybody is over at my grandmother’s house. There ain’t no animosity. Those things, we’re all adults. They happen and you have to move on. It’s all about the love we’ve got for each other, the love we’ve got for Shane. We want to see each and everybody be successful.”
Thatcher saw a change in his brother starting last season. Maybe it was the former player in him or maybe it was the coach that he is now who noticed it. Maybe it was just an attentive older brother, but he definitely saw a different Shane. He noticed the same thing as he watched the Wisconsin game.
“I definitely get a good sense that he’s ready and that things are starting to click football-wise for him,” Thatcher said. “He’s understanding the system, being a part of it and gaining some confidence. It took him a little bit to grasp hold of it but when I talk to him on the phone and we get to talking football, you can hear it. He’s got a different approach to the game. His tone is different. When we talk about the different things that could possibly happen, his answers are different.”
An underclassman with high expectations heaped upon him may be impatient and find it hard to understand why he’s not playing more. A fourth-year player understands the best way to help his team is to get come into the facility and work every day to get better. It’s a message Jones has heard often from his older brother.
“I definitely feel like that I want to show the coaches that I’m making strides and whenever needed I can go in and play any linebacker position,” Jones said. “It’s all about making sure the coaches can trust you at the end of the day, and I feel that they can trust me.”