Out of all of USC Trojans’ commitments on National Signing Day 2017, the most surprising victory for USC football recruiting probably had to be Levi Jones. The four-star linebacker out of Westlake High School in Austin, Texas was just coming off a visit to Florida State that reportedly had him seriously considering becoming a Seminole. Luckily, Jones thought better and decided to pledge to USC and help reinforce a USC football roster in need of linebackers.
Although he is listed as an outside linebacker on various recruiting sites, it is believed that USC football recruited Jones with the intentions of playing him on the inside. At 6’3” 215 lbs., Jones has a super projectable frame to add muscle for the position. However, he is still a talented pass rusher ranked as the 6th best outside linebacker according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. If the switch inside does not work out, Jones’ versatility should ensure that he is still able to make an impact at another position.
Playing inside linebacker requires a much higher football IQ than simply rushing the passer, and this is an area where Jones excels. He does not have excellent straight line speed especially for a player who is still lanky and will need to add muscle in college, but his play recognition is excellent. At both inside and outside linebacker, Jones has showed a fantastic ability to diagnose run plays, pass plays, and zone reads. It is rare that high school players excel in this area yet Jones continually shows an aptitude to read the quarterback’s eyes or identify the direction of a running play. This is a vital skill to have for an inside linebacker and it is likely a big reason why the Trojans like him in this position.
A high football IQ is always important for an inside linebacker (see Cam Smith) but leaving out Jones’ athletic ability entirely would be short sighted. Jones may never be an athletic freak of nature who can weigh 240 pounds and run a 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds, but he is still quick and agile. Jones has excellent lateral movement that helps him cover a lot of ground from sideline to sideline. This can sometimes lead to Jones becoming overly aggressive and over-pursuing the ball, but this is something that can be worked out with repetitions and experience.
Another one of Jones’ strongest traits is his closing speed. Once Jones diagnoses the play, he does a great job of sifting through traffic and closing quickly on the ball carrier. At 215 pounds, this area of his game will need to be excellent if he is to play early in his career. Jones will be faced with a significant size disadvantage and avoiding the arms of blockers who are at least 30 pounds heavier will be imperative. Luckily, Jones has illustrated an ability to do this on multiple occasions and once he gets to the ball, he does an excellent job of making sure the runner is taken to the ground. He may not be able to reach 230-240 pounds as a freshman, but if he can wade his way through traffic and quickly close on the football, Jones’ lack of size should not be to his detriment in most situations.
When looking at the USC football roster at inside linebacker, it is easy to see why Jones wanted to become a Trojan. Cam Smith is locked in to start at middle linebacker but the weak side spot is wide open now that Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell have graduated. John Houston, Jordan Iosefa, and Olajuwon Tucker (grades permitting) are the returning players expected to compete for that spot, but none of them have shown anything to indicate that they have a serious leg up on anyone else.
USC needs another playmaker alongside Smith and Jones could be just the man for the job. Last year’s starter Michael Hutchings performed very well in this role despite being listed at only 216 pounds. Considering that Jones is already that weight and should be able to add another 5-10 pounds before the fall, size should not be an issue for the Under Armour All-American. His ability to diagnose plays and not miss tackles is rare for such a young player and would work well next to Smith who embodies many of the same skills. Jones will eventually want to reach 230-240 pounds especially if he wants to play in the NFL, but his overall skillset is plenty good enough to make his size a null issue in the short term.
It is difficult to name a true freshman the favorite for a starting position, but that may just be the case with Jones. Jordan Iosefa will probably offer the most competition, but it would not be too much of a surprise to see Jones lining up next to Smith against Western Michigan. Even if Jones does not earn the starting spot right out of fall camp, it would be a major surprise if he is not on the 2-deep depth chart. Jones is likely the one signee from USC’s 2017 class with the best chance to earn significant playing time next season. For USC football recruiting, landing a player of this caliber is a big win for the Trojans and one that should pay dividends for seasons to come.