Jarron Jones the man in the middle for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Growth can have its galvanizing moments.

A rough football season seemed to be getting worse. Jarron Jones, a sophomore defensive lineman last year, had struggled finding his niche at Notre Dame. He had worked through the academic rocky cliffs, but had trouble scaling the depth chart.

An end by trade, the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder had gotten the call as an emergency stop-gap at nose guard.

Nose guard is a position normally filled by fireplugs, not tall timbers.

Just two weeks removed from being demoted to the scout team in practice, Jones was suddenly the best option available inside the Irish defensive line. His first extended opportunity was against Pitt, and it was… well… definitely a learning experience.

“There was one play against Pitt: It was ssssoooooo bad,” Jones recalled. “I had a free run at the running back. I just stopped. I thought he was going to cut back. It looked so bad on film.

“I was like, ‘I’m not playing next week (against BYU).’ Next thing you know, I’m playing most of the snaps (against BYU).

“I realized, ‘You want to keep playing this game. You want to be an eventual starter, and someone that people can count on. You’re just going to have to go out and make the most of this game.’”

That BYU game was a significant turning point. He made the most of his playing time by collecting seven tackles, earning his first start against Stanford.

“I was nervous the whole time I was in (against BYU),” Jones said. “After I made the first tackle, I was like, ‘OK, game on.’ I just started playing football after that.”

Football finally came into focus for the native of Rochester, N.Y. He finished the last three games of the season with 13 tackles and a sack against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl.

That effort convinced Jones and the Irish coaching staff that he could survive as the man in the middle.

Notre Dame’s 4-3 defense, different from last year’s 3-4, will put Jones in the center of the fray, alongside Sheldon Day.

A tough place for a 6-6 guy to survive. Offensive linemen lick their chops at such big targets.

“Big guy; big nose guard; long arms, which work to his advantage,” Notre Dame center Nick Martin said of Jones, who he battles regularly in practice. “It’s great going against him.

“His pass rush, he’s got a little bit more movement (than a normal-size nose guard). Those long arms, when he gets into you, he can use that extension to his advantage.”

“(Jones is) becoming more of the typical inside guy,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “They're just so much bigger now. They're ranging in that 6-4 to 6-6 range. They're becoming a much more common player.

“But specifically, he's got to do a great job with his pad level, obviously, and with his leverage. That means he's got to be compact, and he's got to stay low, which he certainly can bend. But if you can't bend at that position, then 6-6 is 6-6, whether he plays at that position, or he's a defensive end and he stands up every play.

“Jarron Jones has the flexibility, so when we are recruiting a player that may be 6-4 or 6-5 and may seem big for that position, if he can bend and he's flexible, the two, three inches really doesn't make a difference. So his ability to bend, his athletic ability really doesn't put him in a disadvantage at that position. Where he's at is work volume and his ability to stay on the field for multiple plays. That's really where the biggest jump will be for him this year.”

“Every day is a constant reminder to stay low, maintain good pass leverage,” said Jones. “That’s always my main focus at practice. Play the position to the best of my ability; be initially quick; be able to pass rush; have some savvy.

“I try to practice consistency. That’s why I feel I can play nose guard.”

While Jones and Kelly see the positives of his size, Cedric Hilliard can identify the reality of the situation.

While a three-year (2001-03) starter at nose guard for the Irish, Hilliard played at 6-2 and 300 pounds.

“For a guy 6-6, (the nose guard position) is as tough as it gets, other than quarterback or corner,” said the 33-year-old Hilliard. “If you don’t have leverage, if you can’t get low, and the offensive lineman is coming off the ball as hard as he can, that’s how you get crushed.

“At 6-6, I don’t care how well you bend your knees, it’s going to be difficult to get that leverage. That’s when technique becomes so important. You have to be able to use your hands coming off the ball; separate from some guys and have the ability to make plays.”

No matter the size, it took some time for Jones to grow into the situation mentally and emotionally.

“I laugh at (where I was at this time last year),” Jones said. “People tell me I could have played freshman year and I should have worked harder sophomore year. You shouldn’t have been in this predicament.

“Everything happens for a reason. You learn from your mistakes and wrongdoings. It helps you grow up as a football player.

“I was very immature (as a freshman). I had growing to do. I had to learn how to play the technique.

“I played a 4-3 (defense) in high school, but I got to do whatever I wanted. Now, it’s more: Do your job.

“I wasn’t positive (through most of last season). It was hard. You can always be thankful you’re on this team and have an opportunity like this. It made you learn, ‘Hey, you could easily be back where you started by one decision.’

“I had to learn how to appreciate it. It was a humbling experience. It gave me more of a focus and a drive to get back on the field.”

Now that he’s on the field, the challenge is how to stay there. Building up endurance to shoulder a tough workload sometimes is easier said than done.

“Being in the middle is about learning how to bring more toughness to the game,” Jones said. “Having the constant double-teams; reach blocks; always being open to the possibility of somebody falling on you… You just learn how to be tough.

“I could say I could go a good 60, 70 snaps.”

“The spread offenses they’re running now, the passing games, you’re not going to get as many double-teams (on a defensive end),” said Hilliard, who now lives in Houston. “The biggest thing you have to learn (at tackle) is that you’re not playing in space anymore. You’re going to get hit on every single play.

“Defensive end was always too much running for me. I liked having contact within one second of the ball being snapped. (At tackle), you have to understand how to take on true double-teams – center-guard or guard-tackle; I’m talking 700 pounds of meat. You have to understand how to split those double-teams.

“When you’re playing inside, you’re playing for yourself. You want to make plays. The more plays your linebackers make, the better you are as a defensive tackle. You don’t want your linebackers touched, it’s as simple as that. Your job is to engage the people in front of you. That’s different than defensive end.

“To play at a high level on every snap, that play-count should be around 40 or 50 snaps. I remember we had some draining seasons. I can remember playing 80 snaps. That drains you. You’re getting hit on every… single… play.”

That sort of physical play can be tough on a guy.

Something that could make him grow up in a hurry.

alesar@sbtinfo.com | 574-235-6318

With Louis Nix off to the NFL, nose guard Jarron Jones becomes the main man in the middle of the Irish defensive line. (SBT File Photo)