DT Jarron Jones a needed character for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

LANDOVER, Md. — Every defense needs a character like Jarron Jones to maintain a healthy perspective.

Hard worker, but a little bit off-center — even for a nose guard.

Last year’s Notre Dame football team had Louis Nix. This year, the Irish have Jones.

This guy’s a hoot.

A few minutes into his post-practice meeting with the media the other day, his words — for no apparent reason — began to jumble a bit.

The personable Jones, a 6-foot-6, 315-pound junior, was talking about the Florida State game, the best effort of his career. He had six tackles — three for a loss — and a quarterback hurry.

While trying to stay humble and avert his focus to Saturday night’s game with Navy, Jones tripped a bit.

“I’m just trying to be consistent and be the same way against Navy,” Jones said. “We’re just … pretty much … I don’t know how to say this … I just got a massage right now, I’m feeling really …”

The group clustered around Jones erupted in laughter.

“I’m feeling really relaxed,” he said, still laughing. “That’s all I have to say.”

The chuckles didn’t stop there.

Jones talked about the newest piece of equipment — a helmet visor — he recently acquired thanks to a bet with head coach Brian Kelly.

“I either had to play over 50 plays (in a game), or block another kick,” Jones said. “It just so happened against North Carolina I did both.”

So … does he get two visors? A tinted visor?

“I didn’t get two, but in practice I’m allowed to wear a dark visor,” Jones said. “That’s winning.”

So … What’s the big deal about a visor?

“I kinda like the visor — look good, play good,” Jones said. “That’s my whole mentality. That’s why I wear the little tights; the little bands. I don’t wear sleeves (under his jersey). I don’t want to look like a softie when it’s cold out.”

This time last year, Jones was barely an afterthought on the Irish defense. His work ethic — or lack thereof — reflected the minuscule minutes he actually played while backing up Nix.

“(Last year, it was) 'Really? Another week on scout team? Help me, Jesus,’” Jones said. “That’s all it was.

“That’s when it kind of snapped at me that I needed to get better. I came to practice with the intention to get better.”

Good thing. Nix went down with an injury late in the season and Jones suddenly became a key figure along the Irish defensive front.

“It’s more about getting better (now) — actually working to get better instead of taking mental reps,” Jones said. “You’re actually doing that physical load that it takes to get better.

“Last year, tons of times (I just went through the motions). I looked at practice as just something to get through. I’d wake up in the morning: ‘Aw, I’ve got class, then I’ve got practice.’

“Now, it’s another chance to get better.”

What changed? Just playing?

“When you're dealing with a man who is sitting behind an All-American, sometimes it's hard to get that same kind of intensity,” Kelly said of Jones’ early years. “Once you get your opportunity and you get some success, and you're in the mainstream of it, so to speak, it just changes your perspective.

“I don't know if it wasn't that he didn't love playing the game or enjoyed playing the game or being around. I think you lose a little bit of that edge when you're not out there. You see it every year, whether it's (young defensive linemen) Jay Hayes or Jhonny Williams, you know, even your backup quarterback.

“Sometimes you want them to have more of a passion. But when they're not playing, they lose a little bit of that passion sometimes, because it's not as fun practicing.”

That comfortable nature with who he is has allowed Jones to blossom as a leader within the locker room as well as on the field. He has 26 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two blocked kicks.

And a whole lot of laughs, just keeping things loose.

“(Jones is) a bit of a personality,” Kelly said. “He's not afraid to be who he is. (We) had a pep rally before the last home game and he's out there dancing with everybody. He's just a free spirit in that sense, well-liked by his teammates. But he's developing that toughness on the field of going from this big guy that maybe was not translating that size on the field. He's starting to translate that.”

The Navy game will give the big man in the middle an opportunity to build on that career effort against Florida State. He’ll go into the battle with the Midshipmen with no worries about their cut-block tactics.

Well … almost no worries.

“We’ve gotten cut blocks all season,” said Jones, strictly adhering to Kelly’s “no cry zone” edict about the blocking scheme. “When you really watch (Navy), they’ve actually toned it down a little bit. We’re not really worried about the cut blocking, even though I will be wearing my knee braces this game.”

The Notre Dame line will shift personnel a bit to account for Navy’s power game up the middle. End Isaac Rochell will be moved to tackle and tackle Sheldon Day will play end. The Midshipmen have refined their triple-option offense to the point where they lead the country with 352 rushing yards a game.

“It’s more about playing team defense,” Jones said. “Everyone has to tackle the dive; the quarterback; the person they pitch it to. You have to look out for the pass. The (Navy offensive) line fires off the ball like a bunch of (defensive) linemen. It’s more about working together.

“It doesn’t take away our aggressiveness, it just alters it. It’s still the same scheme.

“We figure Isaac to be a more physical player (than Day). With me and Isaac inside, we should be able to take shots at the fullback and stop the run.

“I’ve seen (the option) quite a bit (as a high school player). In fact, I also lost my last high school game to a triple-option team, so it (stinks).

“As much as I hate the triple-option, you can’t complain about it. You’ve just gotta play, be disciplined. There’s a lot to learn about the triple-option. It’s very different. But, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”

Big difference from his approach a year ago.

That’s what makes it so much fun.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com | (574) 235-6318

Notre Dame’s Jarron Jones taunts fans after an interception during the Notre Dame-Florida State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, FL. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN