Irish defensive end Jarron Jones isn’t a natural fighter. He considers himself a “brawler,” but not the type that likes to go around hurting people.
Jarron Jones (94) stretches prior to a spring practice last week in South Bend.
Jones’ lack of innate bloodlust on the football field, which contributed to his spending his freshman season as a spectator last fall, may be as much a product of nurture as it is nature. The surprisingly lanky, 6-5, 300-pounder towered over his teenage peers when he played for the Aquinas Institute in upstate New York. Jones’ coaches at Aquinas had to ask him to take it easy during practices in order to keep their offensive line healthy.
High school opponents didn’t present much of a challenge to Jones, and his passive attitude spilled from the practice week into game days during his senior season. His stats and his reputation among recruit-ranking entities tumbled downward. When Jones arrived at Notre Dame and lined up across players at least as big and strong as he was, he struggled to compete.
“Jarron is starting to play like a freshman in college. He was playing like a high school senior a year ago in terms of his immaturity, his lack of aggressiveness,” Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “It wasn’t because he was soft; he just wasn’t quite ready for that mentally. And now he’s gotten ready for that mentally.”
Elston compared Jones with classmate Sheldon Day, who played in all 13 games of his rookie season. Day attended Warren Central High School, a football powerhouse in Indianapolis that regularly competes against the region’s best teams. The smaller Day had to use technique and savvy to stand out even in high school. Jones, cursed with overwhelming size, needed only to line up and toss opponents out of his way.
Notre Dame saddled Jones with a redshirt season while he learned how to fight against college players. He was one of the few redshirt freshmen who traveled with the team to away games, and he resented missing the chance to have a little freedom on the weekend. At times, his front row seat on the sidelines added to the apathy that Irish coaches were trying to remove.
“I was sick of not playing,” he said. “Because coming out of high school and being the man, you’re not used to just coming in here and sitting the bench and watching the game.”
Jones considered leaving the team. He asked himself whether football was the right fit for him or if he’d be better off as a “regular kid.” He ultimately decided to stick around. The coaching staff says he has since turned a corner.
“I think we felt like he was assimilated to being a Notre Dame student-athlete, probably started to feel pretty good about it in February,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “The reports were coming back the way we wanted to see them. He’s pretty comfortable in where he is right now.”
Many, if not most, freshmen on the Irish football team go through a stage of questioning if they made the right decision in coming to South Bend. Soon-to-be senior Louis Nix, another massive recruit who didn’t play in his first season with team, debated his place at Notre Dame as recently as a year ago. Jones occasionally looked to Nix for guidance and got what he needed: tough love.
Jones described Nix as a bully and a big brother — one that picks on you with your best interest in mind. The outspoken nose guard frequently reminded Jones that he didn’t play as a freshman because he weighed 368 pounds and needed to get in shape. Jones was only buried in the depth chart, Nix told him, “because you suck.”
The chiding worked. It helped to light the competitive fire in Jones that had been snuffed out by inferior competition in high school.
“That helped me pick my game up,” Jones said. “I don’t like getting picked on by Lou because he’s the loudest person in the locker room. So, of course, if he picks on me everybody is going to hear it and everyone is going to start laughing.”
Jones got stronger in the weight room, which allowed him to uncoil his offensive-lineman-like stance and develop a better burst off the line of scrimmage. He remains buried on the depth chart this spring, taking reps with the third unit behind senior Justin Utupo and junior Tony Springmann.
Perhaps he still has a ways to go. Perhaps the staff stuck him on the third team to provide more fuel for his competitive fire, like they did in dropping Nix to the second team last spring.
“He’s going to be a factor,” Elston said.