SOUTH BEND | Jarron Jones is heading back to his home state to face Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Along the way, he's gone from a demotion to the scout team to Notre Dame's starting nose guard.
The 6-foot-5, 310-pound sophomore said he just needed to grow up. Coach Brian Kelly said the coaches knew Jones' potential, but he needed a more consistent effort.
"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 started to blossom into the type of player he can be," Kelly said.
Jones didn't play last season as a freshman, but spent the year learning the "stud" position, which is sort of a cross between a defensive tackle and a defensive end. Then this season he began working on the other end of the line as a backup to Stephon Tuitt.
He wasn't doing his work — on the field and the classroom — and he was moved to the scout team when the Irish were preparing to play Southern California, Kelly said. That allowed Kelly, who spends a good bit of his time with the first team offense, to see how Jones reacted.
"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," he said.
The main reason Jones got a chance to show what he could do was injuries. Louis Nix III went down with a knee injury and Kona Schwenke with a high ankle sprain. Several other defensive players were also hobbled by injuries.
Jones was about the only option the Irish had against BYU on Nov. 23. He responded by making seven tackles, doubling his season total to 14, and also blocked a field goal attempt. He followed that with another good showing against Stanford, finishing with four tackles. The Irish (8-4) are counting on him to play well against Rutgers (6-6) on Saturday.
"I think Jarron is slowly getting to that point where he can compete at a high level. He still physically has to get stronger. His volume has got to continue to grow," Kelly said. "I feel pretty confident he can go in there and do some good things for us in '14."
When coaches told Jones he was moving inside to nose guard, he didn't like the idea. He saw the physical pounding that Nix took each game, being double- and triple-teamed. But the more he played the position, the more he liked it.
"It's actually a lot of fun. It's just more for me to use my hands instead of working around such an open field," he said.
The Irish already know they will be without Nix, who signed with an agent. Some are projecting Tuitt as a first-round NFL draft pick. Tuitt has said he will make his mind up about whether to enter the NFL draft after the Pinstripe Bowl. Kelly said he has asked for evaluations from the NFL for where Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson III would likely be drafted.
Jones said the Irish players can't be worried about whether Tuitt will join Nix in the draft.
"Our coaches always tell us, 'There's no indispensable man.' Losing them is not going to create a big hole in the defense. We have the coaches to train us the right way to get us to the level to replace those guys. It's a team effort," he said."
Kelly said he likes what he's seeing on the defensive line with starter Sheldon Day returning along with Jones, freshman Isaac Rochell, Ishaq Williams and several others who missed this season with injuries.
"I feel like we have the guys there necessary to be a good solid defensive line in the fall," Kelly said.