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The Observer

Next Level: Jarron Jones elevates his game in final year

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Susan Zhu and Michael Yu | The Observer

“It was awful.”

The date was August 14, 2015. Notre Dame was in the middle of an 11-on-11 drill during a Friday practice before the season opener when one of the players in the drill fell and rolled up into the legs of a player standing on the side, resulting in a freak injury.

The player down? Then-senior defensive lineman Jarron Jones.

Following a 2014 season that ended with his suffering a Lisfranc injury and missing the final two games of the year, Jones missed all of spring practice. After months away from the game he loves, he finally found his way back on to the field and was gearing up for the 2015 season. But the torn MCL changed all that.

“I missed playing football — [sitting out the season] really showed me how much I love football because being without it was awful,” Jones said Wednesday. “I found myself very down a lot just not being out there and sitting on the sideline, especially when guys were going through adverse situations. And then away games were even worse because I was watching the game on TV [since] I wasn’t able to travel, so having to deal with that was just a problem itself.”

But that didn’t keep the Rochester, New York, native down for long. Despite another lengthy recovery that would span several months, Jones continued to push himself as hard as possible to rejoin the Irish. And when he finally did return for the team’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State at the end of that season, Jones had learned a lot about himself.

“It just taught me to stay the path and not give up on myself,” Jones. “And then it also taught me some things I didn’t know about myself. I was able to recover and then come back. It took a while, but I’m still able to be the player I’m capable of being. So going through that and being disciplined enough to — there were times were I felt that I could do things I wasn’t supposed to do, but choosing not to and just having faith in my trainers and being disciplined, it taught me a lot. And now I’m back and better than ever.”

That learning process matured Jones. He graduated that spring and would be able to spend his final year of eligibility focusing on and devoting himself to the thing he loved most: football. And the difference that made wasn’t lost on those watching him come to work day in and day out, as they have seen him take his play to the next level.

“I think more than anything else it’s the consistency that he’s lacked that he’s bringing to his preparation,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Jones on Sunday. “[He’s] a lot more focused in the way he comes to practice. … He’s much more mature and professional in the way he’s coming to handle his work and his preparation.”

Irish graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones, 94, attempts to block a field goal during Notre Dame's 17-10 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Monica Villagomez Mendez | The Observer
Irish graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones, 94, attempts to block a field goal during Notre Dame's 17-10 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium.

The impact of this change wasn’t lost on Jones either. He hasn’t changed what he’s done, but without the responsibilities of class, he’s been able to to welcome the new responsibilities that come with being a graduate of the University and one of the team’s elder statesmen.

“I feel old knowing that I have a degree,” Jones said Wednesday. “I don’t have class — I have different responsibilities now being here. … I do have a dog, so trying to take care of her. Just doing other stuff, preparing my house before my parents and family come down … just different things. Being a leader in the locker room because I am one of the older guys now, so having to drag the young kids along because, normally, that wasn’t my job so now this year it is being one of the older ones and one of the guys they look up to. It’s different responsibilities, but it’s kind of the same thing: Just living life and doing me.”

And by accepting these new responsibilities, Jones has seen his understanding of leadership and what it requires change over the course of this season.

“When the time calls, I’m willing to step up and be a leader for the guys, offer some words of inspiration [and] stuff like that,” Jones said Oct. 26 as Notre Dame prepared to take on Miami. “ … Especially this year, I just kind of feel like ‘I’m the oldest guy on the team, I have to say something. I hope these guys listen to me.’ But when these guys listen to me, it let’s me know I am capable of being a leader, I am capable of leading these guys and these guys do look up to me. And once I realized that, I kinda started expressing that a lot more.

“… When I was a high school captain, I really didn’t see myself as that much of a leader. I was kind of feeling like I was a leader through example. But [I learned] through maturity and all that there is no such thing as a leader by example. You have to be vocal, you have to pull your guys along, so just this whole year has taught me a lot about leadership.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t allowed his play to lead the way for the Irish defense this season. After a slow start and a change at defensive coordinator, the unit has gone from allowing over 33 points and 454 yards per game to under 22 points and 323 yards per game. Jones has very much been at the center of that improvement, including his team-high eight and a half tackles for loss this season — six of which came in a dominating performance during Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over the Hurricanes this past Saturday.

Jones said the Irish defense’s turnaround has been the direct result of a new mentality. After weeks of struggles and criticisms, the unit stopped worrying about its shortcomings and dedicated itself to blocking out the distractions and just giving the program all it has.

“Just learning to let it go,” Jones said Wednesday. “Forgetting about making mistakes and just going out there and playing our hearts out. Not having the worry on your mind that you’re going to mess up. And when we do that, we play so much better, we feel so much more comfortable in the way we play and people are prone to make big plays and be the players they were recruited here to be.”

For Jones individually, he’s begun to draw increased attention from NFL scouts, as his on-the-field production matched the combination of size and athleticism that teams at the next level look for. And while he has very much reciprocated that attention and hopes to play in the NFL next season, Jones also acknowledges that his final season donning the blue and gold is winding down, and he is doing his best to make the most of it.

“I just try to put it out of my mind,” Jones said Wednesday. “It’s all about trying to finish up my time here with my teammates. I’m gonna miss them, I’m gonna miss being in this locker room [and] miss putting on this gold helmet. So [my focus is] just trying to enjoy my time here.”

But regardless of whether he’s thinking about the next level or the final games of this season, Jones is well aware of what has gotten him this far and what will allow him to both break into and succeed at the next level.

“Just work — having that hard work mentality takes you places, and it showed on this past Saturday,” Jones said Wednesday. “And when you go out to the field and prepare yourself and right yourself for Saturdays, it shows.”