Jul 17, 2014, 12:27 PM EDT
To say that Jarron Jones was on a disappointing trajectory early in his career would be an understatement. While the monstrous defensive end looked the part of physical specimen, he struggled from the start of his Notre Dame career, needing every minute of his redshirt freshman season to just get up to the speed of college football.
Jones spent two frustrating springs trying to learn how to play defensive end like Bob Diaco and Mike Elston wanted, but even with the prototype size and strength, he wasn’t all that close to playing at a position that desperately could have used him.
But Jones’ career in South Bend was transformed… out of necessity. After injuries to Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke, it was Jones who became the next man in at defensive tackle, and after sliding inside and anchoring the interior of the Irish defensive line, Jones seemed to have found his home, even if by accident.
A strong performance against BYU, where he made seven tackles on Senior Day, gave Notre Dame hope for the future. He continued to play well to close out the season, giving the Irish at least one answer for who would fill Nix’s prodigious shoes.
It won’t be one man’s job to do that, especially as the Irish transition to a four-man front in Brian VanGorder’s new scheme. But Jones will play a key role for the Irish up front in 2014.
Let’s take a closer look at Notre Dame’s starting defensive tackle.
6’5.5″ 310 lbs.
Junior, No. 94
Jones was an Army All-American, a Top 200 player and at times flirted with a true blue-chip recruiting grade. He had offers from elite schools — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan and Ohio State — but chose Notre Dame before his senior year began.
Jones didn’t perform all that well in San Antonio at the Army All-American game, part of the reason that he dropped in Rivals’ late rankings. But that didn’t keep Notre Dame from collecting a big bodied, athletic player.
“Jarron is one of those young men when you talk about defensive linemen, you want to look toward their athletic ability,” head coach Brian Kelly said on Signing Day. “I got a chance to see him play basketball, an incredible athlete at 6‑6, 290 pounds, and he still hasn’t developed yet. His ceiling is so high relative to strength and work volume.”
Freshman Season (2012): Did not see action.
Sophomore Season (2013): Appeared in 12 games, making one start against Stanford. Had 20 total tackles on the season, including a sack against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Played his best game against BYU, where he made seven tackles and blocked a fourth quarter field goal. That was one of two kicks Jones blocked in 2013, the other coming against Temple. He also forced a fumble against Navy.
To borrow a coaching term, the arrow is pointing up for Jones. After struggling on the edge of the Irish defense, Jones seems to have found a home on the interior of the defensive line. As a player that’s already shown an ability to be disruptive in his limited snaps, Irish fans should be excited to see what Jones can do in VanGorder’s attacking system.
If you are looking for an area where Jones should make the biggest improvement, it’s from a strength and technique perspective. There is still plenty of work Jones can do to reshape his body, and there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be among the tougher defensive linemen in the country to move off the point of attack. Jones is also just barely scratching the surface as a defensive lineman, with Elston still molding him into the player he can be.
With three years of eligibility remaining, Jones essentially turned his career around in the month of November last season. That’s what a little confidence can do for a player that’s already physically gifted.
I’m expecting a big season from Jones, who will still be learning on the go, but has all the physical traits you’d want in a front-line defensive line starter. If there’s one thing that has me most excited about Jones is the maturity that seems to have found him. A conversation I had with him after the BYU game had Jones taking responsibility for the lack of impact he’d made so far in his college career.
“Just me being young and not focused,” Jones said last November. “It was all over the place. It was in the classroom, it was also just me in general, I kinda saw myself like, ‘Where’s my life going?’ That’s when I kind of realized I needed to tighten the screw a lot.”
Maturity helps. So does an advantageous scheme. Jones is a better fit playing in the A-gap as opposed to having to play the traditional nose guard position that Nix did. And he’ll have a big responsibility in the Irish defense, wreaking havoc up front and freeing up Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan or Jarrett Grace to make tackles from the Mike linebacker spot.
When Kelly and the Irish coaching staff landed Jones as a recruit, he looked like the next in line as the Irish successfully reeled in blue-chip defensive linemen after a decade of struggles. It may have taken a little bit longer for the lightbulb to go on, but Jones seems back on the right track.
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