LB Jonathan Jones embraces depth-chart climb in hard season at Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — The day Jonathan Jones signed with Notre Dame, he expected to win some hardware.
But because he sets high expectations for himself, that hardware didn’t include defensive scout team player of the year, which Jones was awarded last week.
Hours after he sealed his college decision, Jones pronounced first-year goals of freshman All-American and a Heisman Trophy. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound linebacker was dealt a strong serving of reality in his first season in South Bend, but that doesn’t change his goal.
A reporter couldn’t even finish his question about Jones’ next step before the freshman spat out “the Heisman.” Jones only laughed it off once the reporter did.
“The next step for me is going into the spring and making sure I know all the plays,” Jones said, “making sure I’m very high intensity every day, just being a ball player and shooting for my goals and dreams to be the best player to ever come out of Notre Dame.”
Jones hasn’t exactly lowered his expectations. But after training at middle linebacker during a redshirt season and Nyles Morgan set to return as the starter, Jones may be limited to a reserve role once again. Jones’ first game action and first career tackle are still ahead
of him. The slow (and normal) progression of a young linebacker has finally been accepted.
“I wouldn’t be mad if this is how I started off my career,” Jones said. “Coming up off the practice team, being the best on the practice team and transitioning to be the best on the actual travel squad and being the best overall. I definitely wouldn’t have a problem with that transition.”
Morgan, who was named newcomer of the year on the Notre Dame defense, knows the impatience Jones has to fight. He sat behind Joe Schmidt for the majority of his first two seasons before landing the starting job last season.
“He reminds me of me my freshman and sophomore years,” Morgan said of Jones. “He’s really just tenacious. He wants to learn. The way I was with Jaylon (Smith), Joe and (Jarrett Grace), that’s him with me. He’s asking me questions about this and that, this defense and that defense. I love it because I see myself in him.”
Jones described the season as “very hard” for him. He’d been warned about what to expect but figured a freshman season would be different for him.
“Before I came here, all my coaches were telling me freshman year is going to be really hard,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Life is hard. I’m going to get through it.’ But it was definitely a rough year for me. I’ve definitely gotten better.”
Even a nationally recruited linebacker from Orlando, Fla., has to learn how he fits in as a freshman. 247Sports slated Jones as a four-star recruit and the No. 18 outside linebacker in the class. Rivals ranked him as a three-star recruit and the No. 19 inside linebacker.
“It’s not the fact that I didn’t play, because I most definitely wasn’t ready to get in this year and take a spot,” Jones said. “The mental (aspect) wasn’t there and the physicality probably wasn’t there either. But there was a time where it was like, ‘OK, this is my role on the scout team and I’m going to attack it.’”
That recognition came around the same time Notre Dame fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. When Greg Hudson was named interim coordinator, Jones said, the feeling around the defense changed.
Jones decided to follow the advice of captain Isaac Rochell and accept his role.
“Everybody was a little more loose,” Jones said. “Everybody was a little more free to go out and do their own thing and play the way to where they’re not scared or to where it’s like ‘Oh, if I make a mistake, now it’s over.’ Everybody was just like, ‘I’m going to go out there and try my hardest.’”
Jones now can focus on making the travel list for Notre Dame’s first road game at Boston College. He can worry about an invitation to New York - and the Heisman Trophy presentation - later.