Anyone who follows Indiana State's football program knows that middle linebacker Jonas Griffith is the sun around which the rest of the Sycamores' defense orbits.
Griffith earned Preseason All-American honors from STATS FCS, HERO Sports and Phil Steele and was named Preseason All-Missouri Valley Football Conference at linebacker. He was a three-time All-American in 2018. Griffith led the team and the MVFC in total tackles with 132 stops, including 81 unassisted tackles and led the nation with 7.4 solo tackles per game and ranked fifth nationally with 12 tackles per game.
For all of what Griffith has done on the field, ISU coach Curt Mallory respects his demeanor off of it. Griffith is an affable teammate who isn't a task master leadership, but who also wants players to follow his hard-working example. It's easy to forget that Griffith was an unheralded player out of Shawnee Academy in Louisville who had only faint expectation of playing college football at all.
Now he's the leader.
"Coach [Brad] Wilson [ISU defensive coordinator] put it on me in the spring to be the leader of the spring. I lead differently. I demand excellence, but I lead by example. I show them the ropes and expect them to do the same," said Griffith on his leadership style.
The question is how potent are the planets that orbit around Griffith? Are Griffith's fellow linebackers smaller planets like Mercury? Or are they substantial like Jupiter or Saturn?
There's evidence to suggest the latter. ISU's projected starters along side Griffith are will linebacker Clayton Glasco and star linebacker Matt Thompson.
Glasco, a senior, did not get the attention Griffith and departed linebacker Katrell Moss received, but he was effective as he made three starts. Glasco had 31 tackles, including 2 1/2 for loss and a half-sack. Considering that Griffth and Moss combined to gobble up 250 tackles, 17 1/2 tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks, Glasco's numbers aren't too bad considering.
Thompson, smallish for a linebacker at 6-foot, 210 pounds, had 21 tackles and 2 1/2 tackles for loss as a reserve in 2018. Mallory has sung Thompson's praises on and off the field. Thompson, who came to ISU along with defensive tackle Michael Ghant when St. Joseph's College closed, did little talking about himself.
"We didn't do anything yet. The season hasn't started yet and we're making sure we're working hard everyday. We do everything 100 percent and we do it together. I'm going to play hard and you get 100 percent of me every drive," Thompson said.
Other linebackers with experience include sophomore outside linebacker Dayveon Higgs and junior middle linebacker Kelvin Broome. They combined for 17 tackles in 2018.
"Matt Thompson has played a lot of football and has played at a high level. I'm really pleased with Clayton Glasco, he's a year into the program, he's comfortable, and it shows out there. Kelvin Broome hasn't played as much as the other two, but he's had meaningful reps. We have a lot of youth and inexperience beneath," Mallory said.
Among the youngsters, ISU will try to find who can emerge among a group of five freshmen. Johnny May is the lone redshirt freshman and he projects as a middle linebacker. True freshman Deon Pettiford is also in the middle. On the outside, Tyrone Griffin, Christian Hastings and David Whittemore are vying for attention on their maiden ISU football voyage.
As for Griffith himself, this season could be one that gains him the notice of NFL scouts. A ferocious tackler, relentless pursuer and smart player who rarely misses his gap, the 6-XXX Griffith has the ability to play on Sunday's.
It's a remarkable rise from where Griffith thought he might be. He acknowledges that, but quickly breaks back into team-mode when asked about his many accolades.
"I wasn't even expecting to play college football, so it's nice, I'm not going to lie about that, but at the end of the day? It's about the other 10 guys on the field. They deserve as much respect as me because if they're not doing their job? No one is doing their job," Griffith said.
It's that kind of attitude that has Mallory feeling good about the sun of the ISU defense.
"Jonas Griffith is a great football player, but he's a better person off the field. When one of your best workers is one of your best players whose one of your best kids? You have something special," Mallory said.
• Projected starters — OLB Clayton Glasco (6-1, 220, Sr.), MLB Jonas Griffith (6-4, 250, Sr.), OLB Matt Thompson (6-0, 210, Jr.)
• Returning reserves — OLB Dayveon Higgs (6-0, 215, So.), MLB Kelvin Broome (6-1, 235, Jr.)
• New — OLB Tyrone Griffin (6-3, 210, Fr.), OLB Christian Hastings (6-2, 210, Fr.), MLB Johnny May (6-0, 225, RFr.), MLB Deon Pettiford (6-2, 215, Fr.), OLB Dave Whittemore (6-2, 215, Fr.)
• Position coach — Brad Wilson.