Notre Dame

Jarron Jones ready to see what could’ve been with Notre Dame


Jarron Jones ready to see what could’ve been with Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jarron Jones feels he directly contributed to Notre Dame’s gutting season-ending loss at Stanford. 

The redshirt junior nose guard, who tore his MCL during preseason practice in August, had planned to travel to the Bay Area with Notre Dame after Thanksgiving and suit up for his team’s last stand in the College Football Playoff race. Instead, he overslept — he said he fell asleep in the middle of a Call of Duty game — and missed a team breakfast, and because of that transgression, wasn’t allowed to travel with the Irish to Stanford.

So when Conrad Ukropina lined up for his game-winning 45-yard field goal, Jones — knowing full well he’s a field goal blocking specialist — said he could only blame himself for the ball sailing through the uprights and sending Notre Dame to its second loss of the season. Jones figured even if he dressed for the game, he wouldn’t have played much, but if it came down to a game-winning field goal attempt he could’ve gone into the game and tried to get a hand on the kick.

“I felt like if it came down to that last play, Stanford, field goal block, they need somebody like me,” Jones said. “I felt like they would’ve thrown me in there and I felt like I could’ve done something. I blame myself a lot for that game. Even though I didn’t play, I still blame myself for that game.”

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Jones, of course, doesn’t deserve blame for Notre Dame losing that game. But that he feels that way speaks to how badly the Rochester, N.Y. native wanted to get on the field after not only missing the entire 2015 regular season, but the final two games of the 2014 season due to a Lisfranc foot injury. 

“Especially the game against Clemson, you feel like if you could’ve played you could’ve contributed and given the team something, you probably could’ve changed the outcome of the game,” Jones said.

Instead, Jones focused his energy on the initially-slim hope he’d be able to play in Notre Dame’s bowl game. But after dedicating himself to a grueling rehab process, Jones realized in early November — when he was able to do squats again — that playing again this year was possible. 

Coach Brian Kelly said Jones’ dedication to his recovery process allowed him to be in the position he is now, where he’ll be able to play in some capacity against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. 

“I think there’s been a lot of people involved here,” Kelly said. “Jarron, first, has to take responsibility for his own body. So he’s gotta live right, he’s gotta do the right things. (Head trainer) Rob Hunt has done a great job with his part in the rehab, and (strength and conditioning coach) Paul Longo, those two without their work I don’t think we are where we are. 

“But I think the maturity element of anybody is important in overcoming an injury that he had during the season. And I would tell you that generally speaking in my time as a head coach, those guys that are able to come back during the season have gotta be responsible young men, because they have to be the ones that are showing up in treatment. You can’t go get them. They gotta be there, they gotta be there on time because we can’t run and go get them. They have to be the ones that show the initiative. 

“He’s been really good to work with. If Rob was here right now he’d say Jarron has done a good job all year being at treatments. And you have to be mature, you have to grow up and he’s done that both on and off the field.”

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Jones has come a long way from being busted down to scout team in the middle of the 2013 season. He finished the coursework for his major during the 2015 fall semester and only has two more classes to take in the spring to earn his degree in May. 

Jones said he probably would’ve turned pro had he been healthy and played to his expectations this fall. Instead, he’ll return for a fifth year next fall, affording him an opportunity to play with his younger brother, Jamir, a linebacker/defensive end who’s a member of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class. 

But Jones hasn’t had an opportunity to build on a promising 2014 season, one in which he totaled seven and a half tackles for a loss and flashed an ability to be an interior menace. Against Florida State, he frequently chased Jameis Winston in Notre Dame’s narrow defeat in Tallahassee, and it’s a tantalizing thought to wonder how the Irish would’ve fared with defensive line of a healthy Jones, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell this year. 

“You just felt like, if I played, what kind of defensive unit would we have had if I played, if we had everybody, what kind of team would we have been,” Jones said. “That’s always going to be the what if, we’re going to have to live with that for the rest of our lives.”

Kelly admitted Notre Dame missed the push Jones is able to provide in the interior the defensive line. Against an Ohio State team powered by elite running back Ezekiel Elliott and dynamic quarterback J.T. Barrett, Jones’ disruptive ability — especially on third downs — will provide a major boost for the Irish defense. 

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Jones isn’t sure how many snaps he’ll play in the Fiesta Bowl, but whether it’s 10, 30 or 50 (the latter total is almost certainly unrealistic), he’ll relish the opportunity to get back on the field. He’s already enjoyed getting back on the practice field and isn’t taking the little stuff — like running or stretching with his teammates — for granted. 

“I just learned to appreciate everything and realize I’m blessed to have this opportunity to be here because not many people get this opportunity,” Jones said. “Especially you get two significant injuries and you still can be able to contribute to your team, it’s a blessing. I’m just happy to be a part of this team and to do what I can to help this team win.” 

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.