Returning Notre Dame NT Jarron Jones pushes past pain

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most horrendous pain during Jarron Jones’ 13 months of mostly run-on injury rehab was self-inflicted.

The torn medial collateral ligament in the Notre Dame senior nose guard’s right knee, suffered back in August training camp, had healed to the point where in a matter of two to three days, Jones was up over 300 pounds in the weight room on the squat rack.

The Lisfranc (arch) injury in his left foot, surgically repaired a little over a year ago, still aches at times, but Jones has learned to live with it.

Harder to coexist with was watching Notre Dame’s 38-36 regular-season-ending football loss at Stanford on Nov. 28 from his couch back in South Bend.

“I blame myself a lot for that game,” Jones said Monday after practice, ND’s sixth of the month in preparation for the Jan. 1 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl clash in Glendale, Ariz., between No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) and seventh-ranked Ohio State (11-1).

“Even though I didn’t play, I blame myself for that game. ... What happened was I ended up not traveling, because I was late to practice. And I actually had the intent of suiting up that game.”

Had that actually happened, it would have been Jones’ first game-action since suffering the Lisfranc injury on the very first Irish defensive snap of the game in a 31-28 loss to Louisville, Nov. 22, 2014.

Instead, he will make his grand re-entry against the defending national champions at University of Phoenix Stadium in less than two weeks, provided he doesn’t sleep through any alarms between now and then.

How much he can impact that game is being redefined by the day, with Jones’ play volume climbing, his rust dissolving, his resolve congealing.

“I think where he’s really going to help us is certainly on first and second down,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, “but he can help us on third down.

“His push inside is undervalued in terms of what he can do internally in his physical push to the pocket, so he’s going to help us.”

That wouldn’t have been Jones’ role against Stanford — if he had a role at all in that game.

Jones envisions, though, that the coaching staff would have allowed him at least a cameo, to stretch out his 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame on the last play of the game, Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning, 45-yard field goal.

Of Notre Dame’s eight blocked PATs, field goals or punts over the past three seasons, Jones got his hands on four of them, two each in 2014 and 2013.

“I just overslept,” Jones said of why he never got the chance at career block No. 5, last month. “I actually fell asleep midgame playing (video game) Call of Duty. I don’t know how that happened, but that’s what happened.”

And it’s actually way out of the norm for who Jones has become.

As a freshman? Now that’s a different story.

The Rochester, N.Y., product admittedly required either Kelly or his mother from a distance to baby-sit him through a less-than-consistent work ethic in the classroom in 2012. His on-the-field growth was just as jagged.

There was so much raw athletic ability but so little testing high school competition, recruiting analysts couldn’t come close to agreeing on his ceiling. CBS Sports’ Tom Lemming was the most ambitious, tagging Jones as the No. 13 prospect nationally regardless of position and a five-star talent. Scout.com, meanwhile, didn’t list him among its top 200 players.

Per Lemming, Jones was ranked behind only quarterback (No. 2) Gunner Kiel among his ND recruiting classmates and 85 spots ahead of eventual All-American Sheldon Day. Consensus All-America left tackle Ronnie Stanley and standout cornerback KeiVarae Russell didn’t make Lemming’s top 100.

Analysts couldn’t agree on Jones’ best college position, either. Defensive end? Offensive tackle? No one projected him as a nose guard.

The Irish recruited him as a defensive end, and he struggled there from day one. By the middle of his sophomore season, Jones was still a project/enigma. Only out of desperation did he find his way on the field late that season.

And it was as a nose guard, a position he only dabbled in during his high school days at St. Thomas Aquinas Institute and briefly on the scout team in 2012 when the Irish were prepping for their national title bout with Alabama.

In his first game at the position, a relief appearance brought on by multiple injuries, Jones registered seven tackles and blocked a field goal in a 23-13 victory over BYU, late in the 2013 season.

In the 77-game Kelly Era, only Ian Williams in 2010 against Michigan State amassed more tackles in a game (8) from the nose guard position against a non-service academy opponent.

Jones collected 40 tackles last season as a starter, despite missing two games and all but one play of a third with the foot injury. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, with a pass breakup, a forced fumble and seven quarterback hurries.

The two promising, young players who replaced Jones this season, sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery, have combined for 29 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, no quarterback hurries, turnovers forced or pass breakups.

“I was trying to (coach them) the best I can,” Jones said. “Obviously, you’ve got Sheldon there. With Tillery, he didn’t want to listen to me at first, but like I totally get it.

“Sheldon is the All-American. It’s Sheldon. If I was in Tillery’s shoes, I would listen to Sheldon over me too. It was kind of hard to get through to him, but Cage, he always listened to me.”

When it came to even having a chance to play this season, Jones had to listen to himself. He first got wind that it might be a remote possibility after his August surgery.

Because Jones already had redshirted in 2012 for non-medical reasons, his participation against Ohio State doesn’t burn a year of eligibility, since he wouldn’t have been a viable candidate for a sixth year in 2017.

He is on track to return for a fifth year in 2016, when Jones will be joined by younger brother Jamir, a linebacker/defensive end recruit. But he’s elated he won’t have to wait until then to take his next meaningful snap.

“I think the maturity element of anybody is important in overcoming an injury that he had during the season,” Kelly said of the elder Jones. “And I would tell you, generally speaking, in my time as a head coach, those guys that are able to come back during the season have got to be responsible young men, because they’re going to have to be the ones that are showing up at treatment.

“You can’t go get ’em. They’ve got to be there. They’ve got to be there on time. They have to be the ones who show the initiative. He’s been really good to work with.

“If (trainer) Rob (Hunt) was here right now, he would say Jarron did a great job all year of being in treatments. You have to be mature. You have to grow up, and he’s done that on and off the field.”

Now it’s about how much he can grow into the 2014 version of himself between now and Jan. 1.

“Whatever they ask of me,” he said. “If they want me to go 50 (plays), I can go 50. Let me stop right there. Let’s say 30.”

He laughed at his own over-exuberance, but didn’t necessarily want to extinguish it. Not after the feelings he had back in August and early in rehab.

“It’s a long process, and at first I was like, ‘I don’t want to go through this again. I need to take a break,’ ” Jones said. “But once I got back into the flow of things, I just worked through it.

“Your whole goal of being here is just to help contribute to the team and stuff like that. I was a little down, but I tried to remain positive through it all. My teammates helped me. My coaches helped me. Even my professors helped me.

“A lot of people reached out to me — fans as well — and I thanked them all for that, ’cause that kept me positive and kept me working toward something. At that point, I felt like I wanted to give up, and they kept pushing me.”

And now Jones is doing the pushing to himself and everyone around him.

“All the things I used to hate about practice, I’ve learned to love,” he said. “I learned to appreciate everything and realize I’m blessed to have this opportunity to be here.

“Not too many people get to have this opportunity, especially having two significant injuries and me being able to contribute to the team. I’m just happy to be a part of this team and to help this team win.”

Eric Hansen named defensive tackle Jarron Jones as a  player with a chance to impress as Notre Dame opens camp this week. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)