A rising son at last, Notre Dame's Jarron Jones buoyed by family through tough times
SOUTH BEND — They quibble about what Jarron Jones will turn into someday.
Draft analysts, NFL scouts and personnel types, even sometimes Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly can’t piece together his long-term football trajectory beyond a given Saturday. And sometimes even that’s difficult to project.
He’s a walking, tackling, self-effacing cliff-hanger. But he has a heart that has engaged, a resilience that’s been severely tested and a purpose that is starting to overwhelm the chronically enigmatic parts of him.
And yet the 6-foot-6, 315-pound nose guard’s biggest concern on Senior Day Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, is whether his mom, Lakiescha, will try to turn a pregame hug into an all-out production.
“Look at this,” he said, holding up his cell phone to reveal a long text message. “She’s been just asking me, ‘Let’s do a dance?’ Look at this. Y’all see this? … ‘You know, Sheldon (Day) and his mom, can we do something like that?’
“I’m like, ‘No!!’ If she tries to do something, I’m literally going to run around her to my dad, and then she’s just going to have to catch up.”
And then he settles into the reality of how much she and Jarron’s dad, Matt, gave up to help him get to Notre Dame, working five jobs between them at one point. And so maybe a little dance isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the pregame ceremony before Notre Dame (4-6) meets Jones’ childhood favorite, Virginia Tech (7-3), at 3:30 EDT (NBC-TV).
“It’s a family celebration,” he conceded, “because we’ve all come a long way from where we started.”
Thomas Darden will be celebrating too. That’s Jones’ grandfather, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis roughly eight years ago. He’ll be cheering Jarron on for the first time in person during Jones’ college career — and cheering on little brother Jamir too, a freshman reserve outside linebacker.
“Lately, his MS has gotten really bad,” Jarron said. “He doesn’t do well in cold weather. But he realizes it’s my senior game, so he told my grandmother, ‘You know, come hell or high water, I’m coming to his game, so I’m, ecstatic.”
It was the chance to play with Jamir, four years younger, for the first time ever, Jarron said that brought him back to Notre Dame in 2016 for a fifth year at all, much less a second Senior Day.
Jarron revealed earlier this week that he had thought seriously about coming out for the draft after a 2015 season in which a torn MCL limited him to a handful of snaps — all in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
He would have had a chance to play on the field goal-block team in the regular-season finale at Stanford, but the current school record-holder for career blocked kicks (6) was left off the travel roster for being late to practice that week.
The Cardinal won, 38-36, on a 45-yard field goal on the last play of the game, with its arc passing directly where Jones figured to have lined up.
“I just overslept," Jones said after the fact. "I actually fell asleep midgame playing (video game) Call of Duty. I don't know how that happened, but that's what happened."
The MCL injury occurred in August training camp before the 2015 season at a time he still wasn’t 100 percent recovered from a Lisfranc (arch) injury that shaved off the final two games and all but one down of a third to his 2014 season, his best statistically (40 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks).
“Because I kept getting hurt, I felt like I couldn’t keep playing much longer,” he said of the whim to consider early entry. “So I thought, why not just get paid to do it, make as much money as I can? But my parents sacrificed so much to help us be the best we can be, so I came back so they could see us play together.
“Being here for one more year paid off a lot for me. It really showed how much I truly need football, how much I love football. So being here one more year, that’s helped me so much.”
Statistically, that’s sometimes gotten lost in the translation.
Of Jones’ 28 tackles this season, 14 of them came in two games. Seven in the Sept. 24 loss to Duke that tripped the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder the next day, and seven in the 30-27 win over Miami on Oct. 29 in which his six tackles for loss earned him national Bronko Nagurski Player of the Week honors.
In two other games — Texas and Navy — he collected zero tackles. Big plays, game-changing plays — an interception, a pass breakup, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, 8.5 tackles for loss and two blocked kicks — were followed by fades, which were followed by peaks, and more fades.
At times currently injured junior Daniel Cage looked like the better, or at least more consistent, option, at the nose. At other times Jones looked unblockable.
And then there was the triple-option mystery, in which Jones played sparingly in a loss to Navy on Nov. 5 and in a rout of Army a week later.
The company line ND coach Brian Kelly tried to sell was that the cut-block, option game wasn’t Jones’ forte, even though he excelled in such games in 2013 and 2014.
Jones tried to parrot the words to the media earlier this week, then conceded that his injury history may have figured into the limited role.
“I’m just happy to be playing regular football right now,” he said. “Triple option, nobody really likes playing against triple option. Being able to play against a regular offense, in Virginia Tech, we’re all looking forward to it. I know Tuesday our defense came out flying.”
Jones — whose scholarship offer list included Alabama, Ohio State, Florida and Florida State — came to Notre Dame doing the opposite of flying. He developed very slowly during a redshirt freshman season and was doing much the same early in 2013 as a sophomore.
The Irish recruited the Rochester, N.Y., product as a defensive end, though most recruiting analysts saw his best fit as an offensive tackle.
“When you talk about offensive linemen and defensive linemen, there's a makeup there that we look for, right or wrong,” Kelly said. “And we thought his makeup best suited for him to be on the defensive line.”
So did Jones — adamantly.
“I told them off the jump when I started getting recruited, ‘Nope, I will not play offensive tackle.’ ” he recalled. “So that’s why Boston College stopped recruiting me, a couple of other schools stopped recruiting me, ’cause I was like, ‘I’m not playing offense. Offense is not for me.’
“I like defense way better. I like to tackle. I like to mess with offenses. If I was playing tight end, that’d be a different story, because I would be thinking about getting the ball, but other than that, nah, offensive tackle is not for me.”
Neither was nose guard, a position in which Jones dabbled only a bit in high school and as a scout team member during ND’s 2012 run to the national title game.
But attrition on the interior defensive line late in the 2013 season prompted the desperate measure of throwing Jones onto the field at nose guard. And it was magic.
And then a roller coaster.
When Kelly was pressed this week to name the point where Jones’ maturity in the classroom and on the field was no longer an impediment, he replied in a serious tone, “Graduation.”
But Kelly never gave up on Jones, because Lakiescha never gave up on him. In fact, after his breakout game against BYU in 2013, Jarron related that instead of congratulations, her postgame call was all about homework and whether it had been done. Which it hadn’t.
“One of the big reasons I came here was to get as far away from her as possible, or as far as she’d allow me to get away,” Jarron said.
“But freshman year, whenever I needed her or needed to talk to her, she was always there. If I was going through a tough time, she’d ask if she needed to come here. Sometimes she’d surprise me and she’d come up just to hang out for a weekend.
“She was hard on me, and I see why, now. It’s like I love being around her.”
He sees what her dreams look like, too. The licensed practical nurse would love to go back to school, he said, to become a registered nurse. And some way, Jarron wants to make that happen.
“She went back to school a couple of times, but it didn’t’ work out,” Jarron said. “So I hope this NFL thing works out, because I want to take a lot of the load off of her and help pay for stuff for her. She’s the best.”