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December 24, 2013

Kelly raises Jones's 2014 bar

At the conclusion of his high school career, recruiting services ranked the defensive lineman highly, including within Rivals.com’s top-250. The defensive lineman spent his freshman season a long way from home, on the sidelines, wearing the figurative red shirt. He watched the action, absorbed the atmosphere.

His sophomore season saw more playing time and prompted praise from head coach Brian Kelly. As his second year at Notre Dame concludes, the 300-plus-pounder is projected as a likely starter at defensive tackle as a junior.

Sound familiar? It should. It is the trajectory thus far of Jarron Jones’s career as he readies to take the interior reins from Louis Nix, who followed a similar script.

When Nix’s season ended before the BYU game due to a knee injury, the defensive line’s need for solid play from Jones skyrocketed. He delivered in the 23-13 victory with seven tackles and a blocked field goal. Since then, the Rochester, N.Y., native has strengthened his case for future playing time, beginning with the trip to his home state for the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday.

“The Louis Nix piece here is Jarron Jones,” Kelly said Saturday. “His improvements, his maturity, his ability to really show himself over the last month of the season…He’s been a really good piece for us.”

Initially, Jones spent his time on the outside of the line, backing up junior end Stephon Tuitt and sophomore end Sheldon Day. When Nix first battled knee issues this season -- missing action against Air Force and Navy -- senior Kona Schwenke filled in for him. When Schwenke sprained his ankle against Air Force, aggravated it against Navy, missed the Pittsburgh game and was limited the rest of the season due to it, Jones became the oft-spoken “next man in” on the inside of the line.

Jones wasn’t thrilled with the move from end to tackle. He had watched Nix endure triple-teams and struggle to recover from the raw physicality of the position.

“When I actually first moved, I hated it, but now it’s grown on me,” Jones said. “You’ve got to be very physical to play that position. Just looking at it, I didn’t want to be a part of that at first, just looking at Lou.”

Once Nix’s season ended, though, Jones could not afford to do anything but embrace the position. With counseling from Schwenke -- another lineman who has bounced between end and tackle -- Jones found ways to both relish the physicality as well as avoid the worst of it.

“He’s a tall, lengthy player, so for him one of the things he’s improved is using his hands and the way he comes off the ball and strikes offensive players,” Schwenke said. “He’s going to be a great player.”

Notre Dame lost a great player when Nix signed with an agent and declared for the NFL Draft. It also lost the inside presence it has relied on for three seasons. Kelly was careful to temper expectations of Jones while still setting them high enough for next season.

“He’s not going to be Louis Nix. Louis is a unique player and great inside,” Kelly said. “If you’re looking at guys that have the ability to go in there and compete at a high level, I think Jarron is slowly getting to that point where we feel confident that he can go in there and compete at a high level.

“I think you can tell by my voice I feel pretty confident that he can go in there and do some good things in (2014).”

Jones -- who finished the regular season with 18 tackles, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry -- has readied himself for the middle. The sophomore even sees advantages to the position.

“I’m right on top of the ball, so I can’t go offsides,” Jones said. “Honestly, as soon as the ball is snapped, I’m the first to see it.

“I’ve kind of embraced it.”

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