Jarron Jones didn’t even want to go to the games.
Conscious he’d never get off the sidelines as a freshman, the defensive end preferred to stay back on campus rather than suit up for trips to Oklahoma and USC. His mind wandered in team meetings toward quitting.
That attitude underscored what was obvious to Notre Dame’s coaching staff, that Jones wasn’t a functional part of the Irish roster last season.
“Jarron is starting to play like a freshman in college now,” said defensive line coach Mike Elston. “He was playing like a high school senior a year ago in terms of his immaturity, his lack of aggressiveness.”
In personality, Jones slips seamlessly into the defensive line meeting room with Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day. In background, the former national recruit and U.S. Army All-American does not.
Tuitt, Nix and Day evolved within prep powerhouses. They worked against FBS competition during the week. They worked against FBS competition on Friday nights. Jones was told to go half-speed in practices at the Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., because he’d bowl over offensive linemen six inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.
What made Jones so imposing on high school film extended his orientation to college football. It turned Jones into scout team meat for Notre Dame’s starting offensive line. On one practice play last fall Zack Martin and Chris Watt doubled Jones, planting him into the ground. Watt flipped Jones and landed on him, spraining the freshman’s ankle.
“I was so used to laying off,” Jones said. “I’m not really the type of person who likes hurting people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a brawler, don’t think of me as a gentle giant, but I don’t like getting people injured. I felt like when I was back at home, because everyone was so smaller than me, me instilling power and will on people like that, I felt like I was going to hurt them.
“I just don’t worry about that no more. Everyone is my size. Everyone’s been working out as hard as I do.”
It’s not clear where Jones will fit into Notre Dame’s defensive line rotation this season, only that he’ll fit in somewhere. He’s working at Kapron Lewis-Moore’s vacated position, but that’s been filled by Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann. That’s left Jones on the third-team. Eddie Vanderdoes and Isaac Rochell enroll this summer.
Still, there’s no question Jones can be functional depth for Notre Dame this season with four years of eligibility remaining. He’s endured some tough love from the Irish staff and Nix to help him get there.
Jones sought empathy from Nix about the red-shirt experience last season. Nix said he sat out because he was almost 370 pounds, then told Jones that he sat out because “you just suck,” according to the defensive end. Nix didn’t deny it.
“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 if he picks on me, everybody’s gonna hear it. Then everybody is gonna start laughing.
“Some people just have different ways of showing you love. His is just tougher.”
Jones figures to get more of that feedback next season as he cracks the lineup for the first time. Head coach Brian Kelly downplayed Jones as pass rusher and said his role was tracking toward a “handful of plays” per game.
But even if Jones is months or years from achieving his 6-foot-5, 295-pound potential, the sophomore now feels locked into getting there. He says his mind doesn’t wander anymore. Come fall, he won’t want to be back on campus during road games.
“(Last year) people would just tell me, ‘Hey Jarron, good game!’ Thanks, I didn’t play.
That also drove me to want to get better,” he said. “When people say ‘Good game!’ I’ll say, ‘Thanks, I’m glad you watched.”