The toughest time came during road games when he was sitting on his couch, watching his teammates toil in the trenches while Notre Dame Team 127 kept its playoff hopes alive right up to the final seconds of the 12th game of the year.
Jarron Jones, the 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound senior out of Rochester, N.Y., can’t help but wonder just how different things would have been for himself and the Notre Dame defense if he hadn’t suffered a pre-season right knee injury that sidelined him for the entire regular-season slate.
“If we won, it was good, but the game against Clemson, you feel like if you had played, you could have contributed, probably could have changed the outcome of the game,” said Jones Monday after completing the sixth of eight on-campus practices before taking a break for Christmas and then heading to Arizona to square off against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
For Jones, no guilt was as great as what he felt following Stanford’s game-winning field goal in the regular-season finale when, instead of making the scheduled trip with his teammates, he remained back on campus after oversleeping and missing breakfast with the team.
“I blame myself a lot for that game, even though I didn’t play,” said Jones, who overslept after a late night of playing the Call of Duty video game. “I actually had the intent of suiting up that game.
“I felt like if it came down to the last play, a field goal block, they needed somebody like me. I felt like they would have thrown me in there and I could have done something. I blame myself for that game.”
In 2013-14, Jones blocked four kicks while becoming a physical force in the middle of Notre Dame’s defensive line. A left arch injury in the 10th game of the regular season – known as a Lisfranc injury – ended Jones’ 2014 season prematurely.
He was still working his way back into form in August of ’15 when he suffered a torn MCL as a collateral damage victim in pre-season practice.
Sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery handled the bulk of the snaps at nose guard (with end Isaac Rochell occasionally filling in) throughout ’15 while Sheldon Day, Rochell and Romeo Okwara turned in outstanding seasons.
“If I had played, what kind of season would we have had defensively?” Jones surmised. “If we had everybody, what kind of team would we have had then?
“That’s the ‘what if’ we’ll have to live with the rest of our lives.”
For Jones, the Fiesta Bowl represents a season unto itself, which has created a fairly high degree of confidence and excitement for head coach Brian Kelly as he prepares his team for the Buckeyes.
“Where he’s really going to help us is on first and second down, but he can help us on third down,” Kelly said. “His push inside is undervalued in terms of what he can do internally in his physical push to the pocket. He can help us.”
Jones began to feel like his return would not have to wait until his fifth season in 2016 right around the week of the ninth game of ’15 at Pittsburgh. That’s the first week he squatted in the Irish weight room since suffering the knee injury.
After first, it was a mere 135 pounds. Within a couple of days, it was 315.
“It was like, ‘Okay, this is just hard work now,’” Jones recalled.
But for Jones, the regrets remain, although he is excited about the opportunity to wear a Notre Dame uniform with younger brother Jamir, who will be a part of the recruiting class of 2016.
He missed out on a chance to play alongside Sheldon Day during the 12-game regular season. He didn’t get the full benefits of playing for defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, whom Jones calls a father figure to him and the other defensive linemen.
An opportunity to erase or at least compensate for a frustrating 2015 regular season awaits in Glendale, Ariz.
“I honestly have no idea,” said Jones of his role in the Fiesta Bowl. “I’d love to contribute. I think I can contribute. I feel like I can go in there and make plays, probably not as many as I could if I were completely 100 percent, but I feel I can do something.”
Suddenly, the drudgery of practice has become an integral, relished part of the journey.
“All of the things I used to hate about practice, I’ve learned to love,” Jones said. “I’ve learned to appreciate everything and realize I’m blessed to have this opportunity.
“Not too many people have this opportunity, especially after two significant injuries. I’m just happy to be a part of Team 127 and to help this team win.”
After first saying he could play 50 snaps against Ohio State, Jones backed off a bit.
“Let stop right there,” Jones laughed. “Let’s say 30.”
Thirty plays from Notre Dame’s interior barrier could be just enough to make a difference in the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl.