Notre Dame's Jarron Jones hungry to make strong second impression

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CULVER, Ind. — The words stung, and Jarron Jones wanted them to.

Just like the grad senior nose guard embraced the burn of taking second-team reps Saturday during the first day of Notre Dame football practice of the season.

“I’m very hungry,” said the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder, surrounded by the idyllic Culver Military Academy campus, ND’s football home for the first five days of training camp.

“I let injuries get the best of me. It was two freak accidents. Both of them. When you have two freak accidents, it gets to you. It gets in your head.”

One came when Jones’ left foot landed awkwardly after he sacked Louisville QB Reggie Bonnafon in November of 2014, the other the result of teammate Joe Schmidt getting blocked into Jones’ right knee from behind in a practice the following August.

Jarron Jones Injury https://t.co/fAka5EGJC8

— Kyle O'Connor (@oconnorkyle) September 9, 2015

The aftermath of those freak accidents — a Lisfranc (arch) injury that truncated Jones’ 2014 season prematurely and a torn MCL ligament in his knee that scrubbed all but a handful of plays in 2015 — spun into a lost spring this past March/April for Jones.

“Whenever we’d run plays and they’d go lateral, I would literally stop and make sure nobody fell on my knee,” he said. “Or if I felt I was in a compromised position, I would step away and just take the easy way out.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s spring takeaway seemed to be that his former starting nose guard, who flashed streaks of dominance in 2014, could be a productive part-time player in this, Jones’ final season in an ND uniform.

It’s a sentiment Kelly has continually expressed since June and echoed again on Saturday.

“I have to agree with what he said about what he said about 20-30 snaps,” Jones said, “because of what he saw in the spring was a 20- to 30-snap guy.

“I’ve literally spent the whole summer trying to get in shape, get my body right. I lost 10 pounds. I feel a lot better. I’m just trying to prove myself.”

If he can, Jones has the skill set to alter the complexion of the Notre Dame defense for the better. The Rochester, N.Y., product, who came to ND as a defensive end, had 40 tackles, 7.5 for loss and seven QB hurries all while missing two games and all but one play of a third in 2014.

Last season, the Irish got a combined 30 tackles, 6 for loss, and zero QB hurries from the tandem of current No. 1 nose guard Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery, the latter of who has since slid over to the vacated defensive tackled spot manned last season by Sheldon Day.

But it goes beyond his own numbers. Jones is the one ND interior defensive lineman who, at this juncture, can consistently command double teams. And that creates opportunities for his teammates … if he can return to form.

“I feel like I can be the best defensive tackle in the country,” he said. “I have to outwork Cage and Pete (Mokwuah). I’m working a lot of body language as well, trying not to look tired. Run to the ball, small things that show the big efforts.

“Just show I could be dependable player. This past spring I didn’t do that. I did a horrible job of that.”

Jones has received words of encouragement recently from former Notre Dame standout defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who is getting ready for his third season with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

“He was telling me ways I should lead the D-line and help bring the young guys along,” Jones said. “It’s a process to gain the respect of the year guys.”

At least he took a step in the right direction on Saturday, a practice limited to helmets and shorts, with the first session in full pads coming Wednesday.

“It’ll probably take me until we have our first scrimmage to know how I feel for sure,” Jones said. “But I felt I had a very good day today. It was awesome to be out there. I had a little soreness here or there, but that’s comes with practicing. I feel the best I’ve felt in years, so it’s awesome.”

Squibs

Speaking of Joneses, of which there are five on the 2016 Notre Dame roster, Kelly singled out freshman running back Tony Jones Jr. for making a strong first impression on Saturday.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back got some extra reps when sophomore Dexter Williams had to leave practice during the opening periods with an illness.

“He caught the ball out of the backfield well,” Kelly said. “He was confident in what he was doing back there.”

• Depth charts are so fluid this time of year and scream for context, but for the record, the first team offense lined up as follows in drills: DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire at quarterback; Josh Adams/Tarean Folston at running back; Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders and Torii Hunter Jr. at wide receiver; Durham Smythe at tight end; and an offensive line from left tackle to right of Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars.

Tristen Hoge and Tommy Kraemer cycled in at right guard with the first group.

On defense, Jay Hayes, Cage, Tillery and Isaac Rochell comprised the front. The starting linebackers were James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan and Asmar Bilal. Max Redfield and Drue Tranquill were at safety, with Shaun Crawford and Cole Luke at the corners.