Nov. 17, 2016
By Todd Burlage
Jarron Jones is the first to admit that his early years at Notre Dame didn’t qualify as satisfying.
Juggling all the demands of football and academics at Notre Dame?
“Everything always came so easy in high school, but nothing came easy here. There were times I wondered if I would get through. It’s a whole different world,” says the Rochester, New York, product.
Jones came to Notre Dame from Aquinas Institute where he became one of the best prep defensive lineman in his state. But as so often happens to elite recruits, Jones quickly found out that all-state high school accolades don’t necessary translate into college success.
Now a fifth-year senior, Jones did not play as a freshman in 2012 and spent two spring football seasons trying to carve a place as an Irish defensive end without many positive results.
But one player’s struggles are often another’s opportunity.
When standout Irish starter Louis Nix went down with an injury late in the 2013 season, Jones was moved to nose guard for the last three games that year–and he excelled.
After recording only seven tackles in his first nine games that season as a defensive end, Jones piled up 13 stops during the last three games in 2013 as an interior player.
“I think that switch really helped boost my career,” says Jones. “I would always accept and embrace whatever was asked of me, but I just feel more comfortable playing inside.”
And while Jones was becoming more comfortable on the field, he continued to work extra hard in the classroom.
“It took me awhile to realize you need to use the same mentality in the classroom as you do on the football field,” Jones says. “It’s just staying on top of everything that needs to get done.”
Jones said that during the challenging times on the field and in the classroom, his father, Matthew, was always there to provide some encouraging words, or sometimes a kick in the pants.
“He pushed me to challenge myself, and he constantly reminded me of the potential rewards of going to a school like Notre Dame,” says Jones, who followed his dad’s advice, stayed strong and collected his sociology degree last May, much to the delight of his family and coaches.
“I think the feeling, once you’re a graduate at Notre Dame, the reality is it’s sunk in, ‘It’s time for me to look towards what my future is going to be,'” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Jones’ scholastic achievement. “Whether it’s football or being employed, I think the degree kind of has him really prioritizing things in his life. That was a milestone.”
And it was also perhaps the greatest challenge Jones conquered during a five-year stay at Notre Dame that included plenty of injuries and setbacks.
With 40 total tackles including 7.5 for loss as a second-year player in 2014, Jones was very much blossoming into the force everybody in the program expected him to be, until two freak injuries set back his career and his confidence.
The first one came when Jones’ left foot landed awkwardly after recording a sack during the Louisville game in November 2014. That Lisfranc arch injury cost Jones the final two games of that season, including the Music City Bowl against LSU.
The second injury happened during training camp in August 2015 when teammate Joe Schmidt was blocked into Jones’ right knee from behind. The torn MCL and subsequent surgery essentially cost Jones the entire 2015 season, save for a few plays in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
“I let the injuries get the best of me,” Jones says of a mental recovery process that was more difficult than the physical rehab. “It was two freak accidents, both of them. When you have two freak accidents, it gets to you. It gets in your head.”
With the injuries behind him this season, Jones has become a catalyst to the steady improvement the Irish defense has demonstrated since the early part of this season.
The Notre Dame defense endured more downs than ups during the first four games this year. But in the next six games, sacks and tackles for loss are up, while points and yardage allowed are down.
Much of that improvement correlates directly to when Kelly and newly designated defensive assistant Greg Hudson changed the game plan to give Jones the freedom to become more disruptive.
“You would never know what kind of season we’re having being in our locker room,” Jones says. “We have stuck with it, and that’s what I am proudest of with this team–the way we interact with each other, the way we continue to push each other, the way we go out to practice. The energy is always there.”
In a 30-27 win last month over Miami, Jones became a one-man wrecking crew with six tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup. The tackles for loss were a single game high for any Football Bowl Subdivision player this season. Jones’ effort earned him the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week award and the game ball from Kelly, a memento he immediately passed onto to his parents who were in South Bend for the game and celebrating their wedding anniversary.
“I think I’m playing some of my best ball right now because I think I’m putting everything together that I have learned during my time here, especially with the injuries and all the life lessons,” says Jones when asked about starting to become a legitimate NFL Draft candidate.
“When I put it all together, I feel like nothing can stop me, so it’s just that mental and intellectual part I have to master. It’s starting to come together now.”
A day after his dominating game against Miami, Jones showed his softer side by passing out Halloween candy to kids at the Notre Dame football facility while dressed as a Disney princess, an interesting fashion statement for a 6-5, 315-pound defensive lineman.
“After a monster game he was trick-or-treating as Snow White,” Kelly says. “He’s a beautiful kid.”
He’s also one heck of an athlete.
Jones was a two-time first-team all-New York selection–which helped him to gather 36 scholarship offers in football, a prestigious list that included perennial powers Ohio State, Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Auburn, among many others.
As more evidence of what kind of athlete Jones was in high school, he led the Aquinas basketball team to the state championship game during his senior year in 2011, recording a triple double along the way that included 20 points and a school record 33 rebounds to go along with 11 blocked shots.
When Kelly introduced his recruiting class during his signing day press conference in February 2012, the coach admitted that Jones’ work on the basketball court was part of the attraction in bringing him to Notre Dame.
“I got a chance to see him play basketball, and he’s an incredible athlete,” Kelly said. “And he still hasn’t developed yet.”
In another Senior Day snapshot today of “time flies,” Jones has evolved from an underdeveloped and confused freshman into a grown man and a team leader.
“All of our veterans play a part in our leadership,” says Jones, whose younger brother, Jamir, is a freshman linebacker for the Irish.
“When you’re a freshman or a sophomore, you’re immature so the veterans have to keep pushing our guys to keep growing, be better players, be better guys. It takes a whole support system.”
In many ways that mirrors the same support system Jones leaned on during his early years at Notre Dame to reach this point in his life. Athletics were easy, but Jones freely admits that everything else around him brought hard challenges.
“I didn’t grow up in the best area and my family wasn’t able to give me everything, so having that sense that we have been through hard times as a family I think has made me stronger when I face difficult times now,” says Jones, the middle of the five children. “So going through that and having to make sacrifices to have this opportunity presented to me of being able to commit to Notre Dame, play football here and excel at it, I’m blessed, thankful and humbled.”
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer from South Bend.