When Notre Dame began fall camp the Irish were loaded at nose tackle. Louis Nix was the clear top NT, an All-American, and likely top 10 NFL Draft pick. Tony Springmann was the more than capable backup. Kona Schwenke was the versatile reserve who would play snaps at both nose and end. By this past weekend Nix and Springmann were both done for the season and Schwenke was severely hobbled by a high ankle sprain.
Enter sophomore Jarron Jones.
Heading into Saturday’s 23-13 win over BYU, Jones had just 7 tackles on the season. With Nix now done for the year and Schwenke available but severely limited, Jones was thrust into a prominent role even though end has been his natural position since arriving on campus last year. By the time the final gun sounded on another Senior Day victory for the Irish, Jones doubled his season total in tackles including a critical fourth down stop and perhaps the play of the game.
With Notre Dame clinging to a 10 point lead, BYU marched into the Notre Dame red-zone with less than five minutes to go when their drive stalled and they called on the field goal unit to make it a one possession game with a chip shot field.
Jarron Jones had other ideas. Jones used every inch of his massive 6’5″ frame to reach up and block the Justin Sorenson attempt to keep the Irish up two possessions and essentially put the Cougars away for good.
“Jarron, we felt like was coming on and he played exceedingly well and (we’re) really happy for him,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “We thought this was something that when we recruited him that he was capable of, and he showed that today,” Kelly added.
While Kelly and staff felt that Jones was capable of such performances when they recruited him, Jones had yet to show that their evaluation was correct until the last few weeks. In fact, Jones was on Notre Dame’s scout team as recently as a few weeks ago. It was there that Kelly began to see signs that Jones was capable of the kind of play he and his staff recruited him to play.
“You know, when they go down on scout team, I get eyes on them because I’m over with the offense. So I was able to evaluate his demeanor, the way he came and worked every day. We were looking for consistency, a consistent effort. We think he’s got a lot of skill, great size. We wanted to see that fire every single play, and I liked what he did in the couple of weeks that he was down with us, and that’s why we elevated him back up with our varsity group,” Kelly said.
Sometimes it just takes time for the proverbial light switch to turn on and when it does for a player with the size and physical attributes of Jarron Jones, you get a pretty darn good football player. “We knew about his size. We knew about his physical capabilities,” Kelly said on Sunday a day after getting a chance to review the game film. “It was a matter of him maturing and paying attention to detail. Once he’s started to buy into that and understand how important it is, I think he’s starting to blossom into the type of player he can be.”
The kind of player that he can be appears to be a stout defensive lineman capable of manning the middle of the Irish defense – something that will be a huge boost for the 2014 Fighting Irish assuming Louis Nix turns pro after this year as virtually everyone expects him to. A combination of Jones and Springmann, who the Irish will get back from injury, will give Notre Dame a formidable duo at nose tackle to go along with with Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell (also assuming Stephon Tuitt leaves for the NFL).
While Notre Dame fans may be surprised by the sudden emergence of Jones simply because he was quiet on Saturdays up until a few weeks ago, the Irish coaching staff has been pleased with the way Jones has played in spots up until now and wasn’t surprised when Jones turned in big play after big play against BYU. “When he plays the kind of football that he has the last few weeks, this was not just this week, he played pretty darned good against Pittsburgh and he played really well against Navy when he was in there against Navy. So we saw this coming,” Kelly said Sunday.
With Schwenke likely limited again this week as he battles back from a dreaded high ankle sprain, Jones gives Notre Dame a solid presence in the middle of the defensive line as the Irish prepare for their toughest opponent of the season this weekend when they travel to Palo Alto – something not too many people would have thought when it was announced that Nix would be out for the season.
“With us being short‑handed at that position with Louis out and certainly now with Kona being such a question mark, it gives us a little bit more stability at that position,” said Kelly on Sunday. ” We feel a lot better that rotation now takes on a better look for us than it maybe did when we thought with Louis out,” he added.
Of course next weekend will be a whole different story for Jones as the Stanford front is going to be a much bigger test for him than the one he received from BYU on Saturday. Stanford’s offensive line has a way of making life miserable for even experienced defenders.
Even if the Cardinal offensive line ends up making Jones look more like a sophomore playing extended minutes for the first time than Pitt or BYU did, Jones has shown Notre Dame fans enough promise to feel much better about the prospect of replacing Louis Nix in 2014 than they did even just a few weeks ago and his emergence could have not come at a better time in 2013.