Late bloomer Jamir Jones flourishing at the finish of his Notre Dame career

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Somewhere in Matt and Lakiescha Jones’ house in Rochester, N.Y., the football playbooks son Jamir used to conjure in his spare time are stashed for safe keeping.

Maybe one day, he’ll even tear a page out and hand it to Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea or Irish head coach Brian Kelly, but to this point he hasn’t shared the contents with anybody, let alone made play suggestions.

“Oh, I’m saving those for me,” the Notre Dame senior defensive end said with a wry smile. “I just love football so much.”

And maybe for the first time in a long time, football is about to love him back. Big time.

For the first time in his Notre Dame career — which has all of three regular-season games and a bowl trip left — the 6-foot-3, 255-pound defensive end is listed as a starter.

Based on his past performance against Navy’s triple-option offensive attack and his love for playing against it, he’ll also likely be the finisher too when CFP No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) and No. 23 Navy (7-1) meet for the first time since 1978 as ranked teams on both sides, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EST; NBC-TV).

“It’s sort of old-fashioned, nose-dirty, helmet-to-helmet — all that good stuff about football,” Jones said of the Navy attack. “It’s sort of fun to play against.”

Which given Navy’s propensity for cut blocks, is kind of the opposite reaction most defensive linemen tend to express.

Part of the reason for Jones’ elevation on the depth chart was, first, a season-ending shoulder injury to fellow senior end Daelin Hayes on Sept. 28, and then a broken fibula suffered by senior preseason All-America end and Jones’ roommate, Julian Okwara, last Saturday night at Duke.

Okwara, per Kelly, underwent surgery on Thursday.

But just as big a part in his ascension, on a team teeming with defensive end options, was Jones’ drive and production as opportunities opened up for him.

Going into the Navy game Saturday, his season stats are almost identical to that of Okwara, ND’s top pro prospect in next spring’s NFL Draft. And that, with Jones having played two fewer games because of a preseason plan to redshirt him and bring him back as a potential starter in 2020.

• Okwara: 18 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery.

• Jones: 17 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles.

“Performance versus trust — and he ranks up there in the top corner of both,” Kelly said this week. “In other words, trust in assignment and doing what he’s asked to do. And performance, he’s about as good as we have on our football team.

“Just a really smart football player. Assignment sound. You know a couple weeks ago against Virginia Tech he was asked to stop the outside zone play against the quarterback, and at the same time, hold on to the tight end on the throwback.

“That’s a tough assignment. You know, you get caught up in the wash there and you forget about them. But we trusted him so much that he could do that dual assignment. That’s how we feel about him.”

That’s a new narrative for Jones.

He’s always been perceived more as former Irish defensive line standout Jarron Jones’ tagalong little brother at worst, and at best, a player who drew some intrigue for what he might become and not who he was in the moment.

Until now.

Some of the underappreciation of Jones as a defensive end is that he played so many other positions in both high school and college, including unselfishly taking over for Jake Zembiec at quarterback early in their junior year in high school at the Aquinas Institute.

Before and after a wrist injury that sidelined Zembiec, he was good enough to end up at Penn State and was rated by Rivals.com as the 10th-best pro-style quarterback nationally in the 2016 recruiting class, five spots ahead of current Notre Dame starter Ian Book.

Jones, a defensive end/outside linebacker before the switch, went on to pass for 715 yards and six TDs that season, but his defensive film — when he would otherwise have been ripe for recruiting — was almost non-existent.

“At first I’m thinking, ‘Of course I’ll do it, why not?” Jones said of the switch to QB. “And then (my coach) told me that I couldn’t play any more defense. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I hesitated a little bit, but it was something that was best for the team.

“I accepted the role and it was definitely hard, because I knew it wouldn’t help my future much. ‘Cause no one’s going to recruit me to play quarterback. It was something I had to do for the team and it was pretty fun, and I’m happy I did that.

“Team comes first in everything. In the end, winning is what matters. It’s what makes this so much fun. And so yeah, you’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win games. And whether it’s being on the sideline redshirting or being out there and playing any role they ask me to do, I’m going to do it.”

First, Jones had to get colleges interested in him. So he had to prove himself at summer camps, including with the Notre Dame staff.

After signing with the Irish, he started out as an inside linebacker. Three years, 30 pounds and an inch in height later, he was good enough to play a significant role at end in 2019. But with the redshirt rule now allowing up to four games of participation, Jones could have the best of both worlds.

He was originally supposed to sit out ND’s 35-20 win over Virginia on Sept. 28, but came in the game when Hayes got hurt. Now Hayes is the one who will redshirt for a 2020 return.

“All of a sudden, they were like, ‘You’re going to play this year.’” Jones recalled. “And I was like, ‘This is my last year. I’ve got to make the most of it.’ It was definitely a quick turnaround and definitely eye-opening.”

Jarron, a guest on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold Podcast this week, always thought Jamir would end up as a tight end in college and a very good one.

Jamir, in turn, takes inspiration in how his brother, first in the NFL and now as an XFL draft pick, is trying to perpetuate a pro football career by reinventing himself as an offensive lineman.

As for Jarron’s notion of Jamir playing tight end?

“I feel like I’d make a pretty good tight end,” he said. “I played it a bunch in high school, so it was a lot of fun. But honestly I love playing defense. I like being the hammer rather than the nail.”

And he loves drawing strength from those around him, including Matt and Lakiescha, both nurses in their professional lives. Matt also coaches youth football, which is where Jamir got the idea for designing his own plays.

And Lakiescha helped give Jamir the courage to dream about what those plays and he might become.

“When she was a baby, she was in a house fire,” Jamir said. “She was stuck in the house, and someone ran in and saved her. There was no way she was supposed to live.

“She had burns all over her body and somehow is still alive today. It’s just a blessing that she is. And that’s one thing I carry with me. If she’s done all that she’s done with all that happened to her, there’s nothing that I can’t do as well.”

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Notre Dame’s Jamir Jones (44) celebrates after deflecting a pass during the Notre Dame-USC game, Oct. 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.