GLENDALE, Ariz. – With Sheldon Day banged up, Jerry Tillery suspended for the game and Daniel Cage hobbled according to mid-week reports, Jarron Jones’ return to the Notre Dame lineup looked more crucial than ever in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl tilt with Ohio State.
Junior defensive end Isaac Rochell ultimately logged a majority of the snaps inside as the defensive coaching staff picked its spots for Jones, who was returning to action following foot (November ‘14) and knee (pre-season ’15) injuries that kept him on the sideline for 14 straight games.
But it was Jones’ push in the middle of the line early in the third quarter that helped revive Notre Dame’s chances before the Irish eventually succumbed to the Buckeyes, 44-28.
“It was just good to be back out there with the guys,” said Jones, who wasn’t credited on the stat sheet with a tackle or a quarterback hurry, although it was his pressure on quarterback J.T. Barrett that led to a Joe Schmidt interception and ultimately a touchdown that pulled the Irish to within seven points.
“I tried to contribute as best as I could.”
Jones first came onto the field for what was expected to be the final play of the first quarter. But when Ohio State let the clock tick to 0:00 before the snap, Jones was removed before the first play of the second quarter.
Jones eventually worked his way onto the field to make his first contribution since the 11th game of the ’14 season against Louisville.
“About 15, 20 plays,” said Jones of his snap count. “Once I got into the flow of the game, I felt I could go more. But you had to play the starters. You had to play those guys as much as possible.”
It appeared the Irish coaching staff tried to wait until later in the game to maximize Jones’ snaps.
“I wasn’t sure how they were going to use me,” Jones said. “It was more of going in for Isaac whenever he was tired. I was told, ‘Let’s just see how you move out there and see how things get rolling.’ Once I was able to get things rolling, they started using me more.”
The taste of competition and his diligent efforts to work his way back onto the field for the Fiesta Bowl have Jones relishing the opportunity for a strong, healthy off-season in the weight room.
“I’m beyond motivated,” Jones said.
The disparity between the two teams in the final outcome showed that Notre Dame’s margin for error with key starters missing was a bit smaller than Ohio State’s, which lost defensive linemen Adolphus Washington to suspension and Joey Bosa to a first-quarter targeting penalty after Bosa already had made four tackles.
It was a lesson learned for Jones as the Irish try to build back up to playoff-level in 2016 without the likes of Day, Romeo Okwara and, in all likelihood, Jaylon Smith.
“Playing against these guys kind of humbled us a bit,” Jones said.
Health permitting, the Irish will put a starting defensive line on the field in ’16 comprised of Jones at the nose and Tillery at three-technique with Rochell and Andrew Trumbetti manning the end spots. Red-shirt freshman Jonathan Bonner also contributed in the Ohio State game in place of the hobbled Day. Cage got some snaps at the nose, finishing with a tackle for loss.
“It lets you know how much work you’ve got to put in for next year to be able to play at that level,” Jones said. “To be at the same level as Ohio State is all the motivation we need.”