Notre Dame reshuffles D-line as Jarron Jones is lost for season

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jarron Jones ambled delicately across the sweltering FieldTurf in a T-shirt and shorts midway through practice Saturday, with no limp, no crutches — and suddenly no immediate football future.

The Notre Dame senior nose guard’s right knee was nuzzled in a stabilizer, his heart unprotected from the shock of having his 2015 season deleted by a freak knee injury suffered in practice Friday, a third-degree MCL tear that will require surgery next week.

Jones already had a fifth-year option to return in 2016, one that he’ll now most certainly exercise given that he’ll need to rebuild his pro football portfolio.

The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Rochester, N.Y., product hugged one of his defensive line teammates as he reached the corner of the field where the defensive linemen were sequestered, then watched them unfurl what Plan B looks like at the nose guard position.

Early-enrolled true freshman and spring sensation Jerry Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage, who cobbled together a modest four tackles in 11 cameos in 2014, will tag-team at Jones’ vacated spot.

Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly’s inkling is to dash his plans to redshirt newcomer Elijah Taylor and plop him into the interior defensive line mix.

“He might be one of our strongest defensive linemen,” Kelly offered of the 6-3, 285-pounder and the latest Cincinnati Moeller product to land on the Irish roster.

They all looked strong in an emotional sense Saturday, proceeding like it was business as usual once they briefly greeted Jones.

“Quit acting like a freshman,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore barked at actual freshman Brandon Tiassum after botching a drill.

Quantity isn’t the issue on the post-Jones, project-heavy defensive line. And, for now, neither is quality, with sophomore Jay Hayes backing up star Sheldon Day at defensive tackle. One more injury at one of those two spots, though, could change that optimistic formula or at least warrant long thoughts of shuffling an end inside.

It’s not that Jones’ 40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and nine QB hurries won’t be missed. It’s that Kelly has created a culture where the expectation is to galvanize rather than decompose.

“Certain injuries happen, and we don’t talk about the players,” Kelly said of his methodology of how he addresses personnel losses with his team. “Kind of deal with it internally, and we let it go and we move on.

“Sometimes we bring it up in front of the team and talk about it. So each injury is a little bit different. But what’s the same is we move quickly through it, to move on, because every player knows that it’s part of the game.”

Jones’ own ascent into prominence was born out of a series of injuries that prompted the coaching staff late in 2013 season — almost out of desperation — to plug him in as an interior player after he flailed for the better part of two seasons trying to climb the depth chart at defensive end.

Before that, Jones was on campus to witness much of ND’s most tumultuous offseason under Kelly give way to its first shot at a national title in two decades.

The 2012 offseason started with a number of 11th-hour recruiting defections, including prized cornerback recruit Ronald Darby, who ended up at Florida State. Another cornerback prodigy, Tee Shepherd, spent two months on campus as an early enrollee before being cast off in March after being snagged by the NCAA Clearinghouse for a standardized test score issue.

Freshman All-American defensive end Aaron Lynch walked away a week before the spring game. Incumbent starting quarterback Tommy Rees was arrested, suspended and then demoted. Promising Florida State transfer offensive tackle Jordan Prestwood fell through an academic trapdoor in August.

And then there were seven players, all projected in the two-deeps — if not starting, lost for the season or large chunks of it due to injury: safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Austin Collinsworth, cornerback Lo Wood, tight end Alex Welch, offensive tackle Tate Nichols, running back Amir Carlisle and defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, the latter two who are still on the Irish roster and have since switched positions.

What Kelly wants to make sure of is that Jones doesn’t get lost as the team shuffles on without him.

"You try to show as much empathy for our players and that you’re going to care for them,” he said. “And I think what they want to hear more than anything else is that they’re not discarded after an injury, that they’re going to be part of the team, that they’re going to be embraced by the coaches and the teammates, even after an injury.”

Kelly said that Jones will travel with the team to road games and will be encouraged to be out at practice on a daily basis when physically possible.

“Next year. Pick up where we left off and get back at it,” Jones wrote on his Instagram account Saturday. “Still our year. Notre Dame's new biggest cheerleader! We (are) still (out here), and I'm gonna enjoy this ride with my brothers!”

Jones wasn’t 100 percent back from the Lisfranc (arch) injury in his left foot, that also required surgery and that truncated the final two games of the 2014 season, when he was pushed back onto the comeback trail.

“I make sure that I re-emphasize with Jarron that we want his personality, we want him around the team, and heck it’s Notre Dame. All you need is one good fall.

“You play well for one fall here at Notre Dame, it’s an on-Broadway play. Everybody’s going to see you. I just remind him of that — if he has a really good fall here, he’ll get plenty of suitors.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Nose Guard Daniel Cage (75) Saturday, August 15, 2015, at the Notre Dame football practice at Labar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ