Near the end of Notre Dame’s 23-13 victory Saturday against BYU, fifth-year senior Irish guard Chris Watt was viewing individual stats flashing up on the scoreboard.
Sophomore Jarron Jones was a major reason with his seven tackles and blocked field goal that BYU was limited to 13 points.
When he saw “tackles made,” and “Jones 7” right afterwards, he did a double take, trying to figure out who Jones is. He joked that his first instinct told him that he didn’t realize star wideout TJ Jones was also playing defense.
The "new Jones” actually was sophomore Jarron, the 6-5 1/2, 305-pound defensive lineman from Rochester, N.Y. Jones entered the BYU game with seven tackles on the season. He made seven alone against the Cougars (four solo) while anchoring the middle of the line in the absence of Louis Nix III, who underwent season-ending knee surgery two days prior, and Kona Schwenke, who was shelved by a high ankle sprain.
Jones also blocked a fourth quarter 22-yard field goal attempt in the 23-13 victory and was named Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Defensive Player of the Game. Head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged that Jones played “exceedingly well,” just when it appeared from the outside looking in that the Notre Dame defense would be unable to recover from the loss of Nix.
Once deemed a five-star caliber prospect because of his size and raw athletic talent, Jones saw his stock plummet during preparations for the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Game. Oh, he was still a big-time, four-star prospect, but many scouts considered him a better fit at offensive tackle, especially with his long arms. (He also blocked a PAT against Temple, and the Irish offensive linemen have said he has the best reach on the team with his arms.)
The two main issues were the level of competition he faced in high school football and the fire within. Was football really important to him, and was he driven to compete? Unlike fellow defensive line recruit Sheldon Day that same year, who came from a premier program in Indiana and was much more advanced technically and placed immediately into the two-deep rotation, Jones was relegated to the scout team.
By the spring of 2013, Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston indicated Jones was beginning to make some progress.
“Jarron is starting to play like a freshman in college,” Elston said. “He was playing like a high school senior a year ago in terms of his immaturity, his lack of aggressiveness. Now he’s got this great big body and starting to throw that around and become more of an aggressive player.
“He wasn’t a soft player by any means, but he just wasn’t as aggressive as we needed him to be.”
The top sound bite from Jones in the spring was about the way Nix informed him the difference between the two of them and why they didn’t play as freshmen.
“It’s because I was 368 pounds,” said Jones, imitating Nix’s voice. “But you — you just suck!”
Jones reached the crossroads of his young college football career the week after the Oct. 5 Arizona State game when he was demoted back down to the scout team.
“I wasn’t taking stuff seriously and I got sent down to the scout team, which humbled me and made me want to work harder,” said Jones of his epiphany. “I’m not saying the scout team is a bad thing, but it’s just something I don’t want to do.”
Instead of sulking, the fire that had been previously missing was lit, and Kelly was one of the first to take note.
“When they go down on scout team, I get eyes on them because I'm over with the [starting] offense,” Kelly said. “So I was able to evaluate his demeanor, the way he came and worked every day. We were looking for consistency. … We think he's got a lot of skill, great size. We wanted to see that fire every single play, and I liked what he did in the couple of weeks that he was down with us, and that's why we elevated him back up with our varsity group.”
Jones said he was with the scout team for about two weeks and appreciated how the players there put forth strong efforts for the overall good, even if they weren’t going to play during a game.
“That taught me how to be more consistent, going down there and working with them — because they work hard on a consistent basis,” Jones said. “That taught me [to do the same] … It wasn’t just football but everyplace, in the classroom and life in general. It made me ask where my life is going and I realized that I needed to tighten the screws a lot more.”
Kelly indicated that Jones’ maturing process first had to begin beyond football.
“Jarron needed to earn some trust relative to his schoolwork and doing things the right way off the field,” said Kelly, who noted that Jones had actually fared pretty well in part-time action the previous two weeks against Navy and Pitt. “That’s just part of the entire process of developing within the program. He had to attend to making sure that he was making good decisions in the classroom and taking care of the little things. I've always seen a direct correlation that when you're doing the right things off the field, it generally starts to show itself on the field, and that's what we're seeing with Jarron.
“We knew about his size. We knew about his physical capabilities. It was a matter of him maturing and paying attention to detail. Once he's started to buy into that and understand how important it is, I think he's starting to blossom into the type of player he can be.”
The evolving maturity was further manifested after the BYU game when Jones didn’t gloat about his performance or believe that he’s “arrived.”
“It’s just one day,” Jones shrugged. “I’ve still got to keep working hard, keep focused and everything. It’s a boost because it lets me know what I’m capable of. … There’s always room for improvement — and for me, obviously, a lot more room for improvement. It’s a stepping stone and lets me build on something.
"I’ve got to look to Stanford and keep the same focus I had coming into BYU week. … Stanford’s a top 10 team in the country. This could make or break our season, so just going into Stanford week I need to keep my focus. [But] it gives me a sense of confidence knowing I can do this.
“You have to grow. It’s just up to me being the man I want to be and the player I want to be after four years.”