Notre Dame football: Climb started for ND's Jones with a commitment off the field

South Bend Tribune

The euphoria lasted until just after the ringing stopped, and Notre Dame football’s newly minted cult hero, fill-in nose guard Jarron Jones, heard his mother’s voice.

“What homework do you have?” Jones reported her as saying after her 6-foot-6, 305-pound son helped quell one of the nation’s more potent offenses in a 23-13 Irish victory over BYU last Saturday.

“I’m like, ‘Mom, I just played a game,’” he protested.

“‘Are you going to study tonight?’ ”

It wasn’t a trick question. Jones’ climb from project to prospect, he admitted, was prolonged by a diluted focus off the field. And it’s a climb he hopes to continue Saturday night at Palo Alto, Calif., when the 25th-ranked Irish (8-3) face a pounding, bullying offense from No. 8 Stanford (9-2).

“They just run plays and they don’t care if you know (what’s coming.),” Jones said. “They just are there to pretty much whoop your (butt).”

What the Cardinal will meet on the other side of the line in Jones is somewhat of a mystery. The sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., was a backup defensive end just a few weeks ago and a last-resort option at that position when the season started.

Against BYU, Jones had shifted to nose guard out of necessity/desperation and responded with seven tackles and a key blocked field goal in the fourth quarter. That matched his career tackle total to date coming in, in the most extensive and high-leveraged playing time of his career.

To put that in perspective, the seven tackles ties the career-high of senior third-year starter and future first-round draft choice Louis Nix, who is out for what’s left of the season following Nov. 21 knee surgery.

In fact, it would constitute the second-most by a starting nose guard against a non-service academy team in the 50-game Brian Kelly coaching era, behind only Ian Williams’ eight tackles against Michigan State in game 3 of the 2010 season. But Jones didn’t start last Saturday. He came on in relief for senior Kona Schwenke, still hobbled by a high-ankle sprain he suffered Nov. 2 against Navy.

“I’m just trying to pretend what happened against BYU didn’t happen,” Jones said. “Just coming in with that same focus as I did.”

Nix has helped with that focus in a twisted sort of way.

“Everyone is talking about me and stuff, so it’s like ‘Now you think you’re famous.’ ” Jones said laughing as he told the story about Nix’s reaction.

“I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think I’m famous. I’m trying to get ready for Stanford.’ It’s just so much fun.

“(Nix) talks bad to everybody, but it’s not like he’s trying to put us down. He’s just trying to keep us focused, keep us getting ready for the next game, doesn’t want to keep us on the high horse or nothing like that. That’s what goes into losing., overlooking little things.”

Which Jones had become an expert at, he admitted, during his first year and some change at Notre Dame.

Recruiting analysts figured there’d be an adjustment period on the field for Jones, who played for a small school (St. Thomas Aquinas Institute) in upstate New York against overmatched competition. The speed and talent differential from high school to college was so much wider than most, if not all, of what his fellow members of the 2012 recruiting class had experienced.

What the analysts couldn’t agree upon is what Jones would turn out to be. Just as many projected him as an offensive tackle as those who saw a burgeoning defensive lineman. didn’t list him among the nation’s 200 prospects. CBS Sports Network analyst Tom Lemming went to the other extreme, tabbing Jones as a five-star talent and the nation’s No. 20 player overall, regardless of position.

Jones redshirted as a freshman, then struggled earning the trust of the coaching staff initially as a sophomore.

“You have to do other things in this program to earn trust, and it starts with off the field.,” Kelly said “Jarron needed to earn some trust relative to his schoolwork and do things the right way off the field. And that's just part of the entire process of developing within the program.

“He had to attend (class), make 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 added bonus is that he’s blossoming at nose guard, a position for which Notre Dame doesn’t really have a clear answer for 2014.

Nix is expected to enter the 2014 NFL Draft sometime before the Jan. 15 deadline, although the 6-3, 357-pounder has softened his stance recently. Schwenke and fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton are out of eligibility.

The best nose guard prospect on ND’s recruiting board, 6-6, 340-pound Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky., isn’t on board yet with the Irish, and may never get there, with No. 1 Alabama remaining the team to beat for him. Junior end Tony Springmann, who will be coming off major knee surgery, is the only other obvious option.

“I actually love playing nose guard, believe it or not,” said Jones, who dabbled with it a little bit in high school and worked there on the scout team last December to prep the No. 1 Irish offense for its BCS National Championship Game matchup with Alabama.

“When I first heard I was playing nose guard (this season), I was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” he said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘I’m not that big. I’m not Louis. What do you expect me to do?’

“But playing it has been a lot more fun. It’s helped me be a lot more physical in the game, and this is just something I’m thankful for, because it gives me the opportunity to actually like play a role.”

More often that not, when the light comes on from a heretofore dormant prospect, progress isn’t always a straight line. There are jagged edges, even regression, which Jones has tried to guard against by parroting the mantra Kelly and others have force-fed him this week, “I’m just getting ready for Stanford.”

But the light clearly is on, and Jones, at least, does not sound like a man who forgets where he came from.

“It was family, coach Kelly, all that,” Jones said of his turning point. “There are stories that they have about fixing the smaller things in their life and how that just impacted them and (helped them) become what they are today. My mom, every time I talk to her, she’s constantly yelling at me about academics.

“That’s how my mom is, to help me stay focused, help me be the best man I can be. And that’s why I’m thankful for her, and my dad too.

“It’s just me being consistent. It’s not a problem., but it’s a challenge. It’s me, going day after day, being the same person, the same guy, working as hard as I can at each and every thing I do.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day (91) left, and defensive lineman Jarron Jones (94) bottle up Pittsburgh running back Isaac Bennett (34) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Jones had a break-out game against BYU last Saturday. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER