In the past, Jarron Jones might have just laughed it off, turning to a light-hearted response to downplay the not so subtle jabs.
Now a fifth-year senior following two significant injuries (foot and knee) that caused him to miss 14 of the last 15 games, the 6-foot-5½, 315-pound nose tackle out of Rochester, N.Y. is prepared to own it.
Own the questions, own the doubt, own the uncertainty. Prove it all wrong.
“Absolutely not,” said Jones when asked if he concurred with Brian Kelly’s assessment that he could provide just 20-to-30 snaps per game this fall. “But what (Kelly) saw in the spring was a 20-to-30 snap guy.”
The happy-go-lucky Jones, a demeanor he could take on with Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara, Jaylon Smith, and Joe Schmidt around, was a comfortable fit. All Jones had to do was anchor the middle of the defensive line.
Then came the Lisfranc (foot) injury in the Louisville game in mid-November of 2014. It was a complex injury involving bones and ligaments that connect the midfoot and forefoot.
It’s a lengthy recovery, particularly for a 300-pound-plus athlete, which eliminated him from participation in spring practice 2015 and was still a factor when training camp opened in August.
Before the month was over, Jones was ruled out of the ’15 regular season when a sideswiped offensive lineman crashed into his knee.
The Notre Dame training staff worked diligently to get Jones back in time for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. But he was a shell of his 2014 self, logging about 15 or so ineffective snaps against the Buckeyes.
It carried over into the spring of 2016. His performance failed to inspire defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who wasn’t willing to declare Jones – who played dominant football against Florida State midway through the 2014 season – a starter heading into 2016.
In other words, for the better part of a year-and-a-half, Jones has been recovering, not progressing his game.
“It was really difficult,” said Jones of the Fiesta Bowl. “I had to push past some things. I kind of felt rushed. Honestly, during that game, I still played hurt. I shouldn’t have been out there, but I just couldn’t miss that game.
“This spring, whenever we’d run plays and they’d go lateral, I would literally stop and make sure nobody fell on my knee. If I felt I was in a compromised position, I would step away and just take the easy way out.”
And so the doubt lingers. Another subtle jab here and there from the coaching staff. Another round of motivation in an attempt to awaken the sleeping giant.
As pre-season camp opened at the Culver (Ind.) Academies over the weekend, Jones – working behind junior nose tackle Daniel Cage – has accepted the criticism and tried to low-key Kelly’s most recent public declaration of doubt.
“It’s been a process, but literally, right now, I feel the best I have since I (suffered the Lisfranc) injury,” Jones said. “I worked really hard this summer and had to whip myself back into shape. I feel great right now.”
Underneath, inside, Jones is promising himself more than Kelly’s estimation. Assisting in the maximization of his talent is defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, who has been at Notre Dame since the spring of 2015, but is just now coaching a healthy Jarron Jones for the first time.
“I’m just trying to master my pass rushing because I feel like I’m a good run defender,” Jones said. “Mastering my pass rush, using more hands, using quickness, using my hips more…(Gilmore is) helping me a lot. Working with him, I feel like my hips are a lot looser than they’ve been in the past.”
At his best, Jones was a wall on the interior defensive line. Never one to show much mobility or side-to-side play-making ability, the Irish still could count on Jones setting the point of attack.
Against Florida State in ’14, he made six tackles – three for lost yardage. Against Arizona State, Northwestern and even Louisville, the latter the game in which he was injured, Jones made stops behind the line of scrimmage. He had a career-high seven tackles against the Wildcats.
It’s time to return to and build upon that promise.
“Besides winning the national championship, I’m just trying to be the best defensive lineman I can be,” said Jones, who admits to added motivation with little brother, outside linebacker Jamir, now on the team.
“I feel like this is the year I should reach my full potential, despite all my setbacks. This is the one shot that I have to live up to my potential.”
He won’t reach that potential at 20-to-30 snaps a game.
“I’m aiming for more,” Jones said. “If (20-to-30 snaps) is the case, then I’ll do whatever I can do to help this team win the national championship.
“But I spent the whole summer trying to get in shape, get my body right. I lost 10 pounds. I feel a lot better. I’m just trying to prove myself like all the guys. I’m striving for much more. I feel like I can be the best defensive tackle in the country.”
Now that would make the arduous journey complete.