Sept. 16, 2010
By Richard Retyi, U-M Athletic Media Relations
You may have heard, the University of Michigan football team has the Big Ten's top rusher this year, some quarterback fella whose name is popping up on Heisman Trophy lists and who's trending on Twitter. Denard something. Shoehorn? Something like that. You may not know that Michigan also has the Big Ten's leading tackler, a fifth-year senior linebacker named Jonas Mouton. He's averaging 10.5 tackles per game, had an interception against Notre Dame and you heard his name announced a hundred times on NBC's broadcast.
I tried to interview him once earlier this year, but he ducked out the back door after training table. Now seems like a perfect time to try again. I wait until he's finished his workout and catch him before he exits Schembechler Hall. He doesn't look too excited. Jonas knows I have a job to do, so he stops; he sits down with me. I tell him this will take 10 minutes. He asks if we can be done in eight and a half.
"I'm not really into all ... this," he says, waving his hand above his head.
All this. The interviews. The headlines. The media requests. The hype. All this. Talking about himself. The process. "How did it feel when you did this? How did it feel when you did that?"
Jonas is a linebacker. He's got a badass beard. He hits people. We sit outside Schembechler Hall, me with my pen and my notebook, the light of my recorder burning OSU red. I catch him staring at it a few times. Jonas is tired from his workout. He missed his ride home with teammate and fellow linebacker Obi Ezeh. He hasn't even had time to take the tape off his wrists. Because of me, he's now going to have to ride Obi's bike home. Jonas has gone from being less than excited to being a little pissed.
Jonas is a linebacker. He had a career-best 13 tackles on the big stage at Notre Dame and finished the game with an interception -- his third in the last 13 games. His team is 2-0 and ranked. The Block 'M' has been on every sports station and local newscast for a week. Jonas has gotten his fair share of attention too.
"Everybody wants to tell me how good I played," Jonas says, "but I just think of the plays I didn't make. I don't dwell on them in the game, but it bugs me after."
Jonas pulls on the tape on his wrists. It's already Wednesday and it looks like he's still thinking about righting some of Saturday's wrongs.
There's a significant pause on my recorder. The beep-beep of a truck in reverse cuts the silence. Maybe I was jotting something down at the time, but I was probably trying to think of a question Jonas hadn't heard this week. And trying to keep it to eight and a half minutes.
How do you stay consistent? What are your expectations as a senior? How do you plan to improve this year? What's your favorite sandwich? Why are you so much better this year?
It's not like Jonas had a bad season in 2009 -- fourth on the team in tackles with 66 stops and two interceptions -- but the main storyline surrounding him this year is his maturity. Growing up. "Getting it." Jonas agrees that there've been improvements to the mental side of his game.
"I focused on the little things in the offseason," Jonas says.
Like what? "The little details."
Such as? "Coaching points."
Anything else? "Technique. Terminology."
Jonas really isn't into this.
It's hard to pull back the curtain and find out exactly what he did in the offseason that has his teammates and coaches singling him out for high praise. The media loves him because he's a physical specimen. He is 6'2", 240 pounds with less fat on him than piece of grilled chicken. "I'm in the best shape of my life," Jonas says.
But his physical abilities aren't the only things impressing these days.
"It's the mental side of the game," Jonas offers in a rare sound bite running longer than 10 seconds. "Instead of relying on my athletic ability so much, I wanted to improve the little things. I watched extra hours of film. I worked on studying routes and formations."
He trails off. But is there any substitute for game action? "No," Jonas says, shaking his head.
He keeps shaking his head, while my recorder picks up more silence.
Jonas had eight tackles against UConn, 13 against Notre Dame. He's thriving on game action. "I put the work in during the offseason," he says. "Now I put the work in throughout the week so I can perform on Saturday. You'd hope I get better each week."
"We're doing a good job of not blowing assignments, but we always want to improve," Jonas says, loosening up considerably when talking about his teammates. "Open field tackling; we want to make some big plays."
The Wolverine defense has forced four turnovers through two games, recording three interceptions and recovering a fumble. Jonas credits defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Greg Robinson for preparing him and his teammates.
"Coach Robinson has been great," Jonas says. "He's helped me learn what to study. I'm better at reading routes, recognizing alignments and formations."
The little things. The mental stuff.
The interview ends in six minutes and 22 seconds, but Jonas has already missed his ride, and for what? All this? He doesn't want and doesn't need 1,000 more words on him spit out into ones and zeros on the internet, but he knows I have a job to do and he knows people want a peek behind the helmet.
He isn't upset. Jonas apologizes for not being enthusiastic about the attention. We both have jobs to do and his is to focus on academics, train hard, study film and perform on Saturday. He doesn't want to get distracted by the little things. Like a guy with a notebook and a recorder talking about how well he played. There'll be plenty of time for talk once the season is over, if I can catch him before he ducks out the back door at training table.