Notre Dame NT Jarron Jones searches for Blue-Gold breakthrough

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jarron Jones unleashed a gap-toothed grin as he rocked forward in his chair, a happy little kid disguised as a 315-pound, fifth-year defensive lineman.

Many of the Notre Dame teammates who surrounded him, Jones acknowledged, don’t share the senior’s enthusiasm. They see Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT) as a chore, a glorified scrimmage, more like a practice than a late spring celebration.

But those disinterested parties didn’t miss the entire 2015 regular season with a torn right MCL, the result of a freak knee injury in fall camp that dragged his career to a screeching halt. They didn’t sit at home after class while their teammates practiced, left with a sudden void buried deep in their gut. They didn’t watch many of their classmates set their sights on the NFL, chasing a dream while Jones was left in limbo.

The hulking 6-foot-6 nose guard is sick of missing games. So sure, call the Blue-Gold Game a glorified scrimmage.

After a year spent wilting on the Notre Dame Stadium sidelines, Jones will take anything he can get.

“It’s been a while since I’ve played in there, so it’s going to be awesome,” Jones said, a thick gold chain dangling from his neck. “It felt surreal practicing in (Notre Dame Stadium on Friday). It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m back in here. Jesus, grab the wheel.’ ”

Saturday’s scrimmage, though perhaps trivial, also serves a practical purpose for the returning Jones. Notre Dame’s most seasoned defensive lineman is locked in a battle for playing time, dueling juniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah for the few available reps.

Jones’ 12 career starts and 60 career tackles, though significant, won’t help him win the job. He needs to prove he’s still capable of caving in an opposing line, of enforcing his will, of dismantling double teams with 315 pounds of leverage and determination.

He needs to be the dominant force that found a home on the Irish line in 2014, not the hesitant veteran who has stalled at times in his final spring.

“I would say that Jarron is still playing a bit tentative,” head coach Brian Kelly said last week. “I think he understands that he’s got to play with more confidence, and I’m confident that he will when the lights are on.

“But having said that, he’s going to be challenged. There are a lot of good players in there, and he’s going to have to really bear down and make that concerted effort to really challenge himself, because we know he’s got some really unique qualities — his size, his ability to push the pocket, those things are still there.”

While his physical attributes remain undeniably present, Jones isn’t the same player that started 11 games and compiled 7.5 tackles for loss in 2014. The knee rehab was followed by a stress reaction in his previously injured left foot, and he still jumps on a stationary bike between practice drills to prevent a nagging soreness.

His injuries have left scars, both physical and mental.

“A lot of times people make (dog) piles in our scrimmages and stuff like that,” Jones said. “I always find myself just stopping, because I don’t want to be a part of it, because last time…you know what happened. You guys actually saw (the MCL injury on Showtime’s “A Season with Notre Dame Football,” and it was gross.”

Jones’ challenge, perhaps more than anything schematic or fundamental, is to simply cut it loose, to play as if he had never been injured. The question isn’t whether Jones can be great, but if he’ll let himself be great.

His obstacle isn’t his knee, or his opponent, but his head.

“It’s not an easy process at all (to play without hesitation),” said Jones, who contributed sparingly in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss Jan. 1 to Ohio State. “I still struggle with it to this day, but it’s just something that even my coaches have to remind me of. ‘Keep playing. Keep the intensity level up.’ ”

Notre Dame’s imposing nose guard knows how it feels to have football taken from him. That absence allowed him to appreciate everything more — even the glorified scrimmages.

With his final Blue-Gold Game, his final fall camp and his final collegiate season ahead of him, Jones’ goals — like his perspective — have evolved.

“I just want to have an All-American season and win a national championship,” he said. “If I’m able to do that, I feel like I can look back and just be happy.”

Jones paused and looked around, the lone remaining Irish player in what was once a room full of interviews.

“I hope I can last to the end of the season like I lasted to the end of this press conference,” he added with a laugh. “That would be great, too.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame defensive tackle Jarron Jones, right, and Lincoln Feist during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN