SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had to separate the team’s next-man-in mentality from showing empathy to nose guard Jarron Jones, who will miss the 2015 season after suffering a torn MCL during preseason practice.
Jones, a redshirt junior, is expected to return healthy to Notre Dame for his final year of eligibility next fall. But after the Rochester, N.Y. native worked his way back from a season-ending foot injury last November, seeing him go down with another series injury was difficult to digest.
“I made it a point to talk (to the team) about Jarron at the end of practice today, because he's a personality,” Kelly said. “He's a good player, and I don't mean to say that his personality is bigger than who he is as a player, but he's got a big personality. And so it's important to kind of talk about him, and that he's gonna be missed for a lot of reasons, but primarily because of who he is as a kid."
Kelly said Jones will travel with the team and continue to be a presence at practice — he ambled around the sidelines of the LaBar Practice Fields on Saturday with an immobilizing cast on his right knee — but Notre Dame can’t afford to dwell on what might’ve been had the 6-foot-5, 315-pound nose guard been healthy this fall. A team with legitimate playoff aspirations — and a relatively thin defensive line that didn’t produce many sacks last year — will turn to the next man in without Jones. Or, more accurately, the next men in.
Sophomore Daniel Cage took majority of reps with Notre Dame’s first-team defense during Saturday’s practice and has the most gameday experience of anyone vying to fill in for Jones. Cage played in 11 games last year as a true freshman and recorded four tackles.
Junior defensive end Isaac Rochell won’t permanently move over to the nose guard position, Kelly said, though just as the Irish defense did last year they’ll move him inside in certain down and distance situations. Junior Jacob Matuska could see some time at nose guard, too.
But the guy who will generate the most buzz in the conversation is freshman Jerry Tillery, who impressed coaches during spring practice after enrolling early in January. Tillery, a 6-foot-6, 305-pounder who plays with “unique leverage,” in the words of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, should see plenty of playing time this fall with Cage likely unable to take on a high volume of snaps.
“Jerry is tremendous,” graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace said. “He is a fantastic freshman. Talk about big bear paws, big mitts, he's just slinging guys. He does some things that are pretty special out there. He can latch onto a guard and make a play. Holy cow, this kid was in high school last year.
“He's really picking up on the defense, he's picking up on subtle things that more of a veteran D-lineman does, so you feel very comfortable playing behind a guy like Jerry."
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Kelly said Tillery’s work during spring practice — he ran with the No. 1 defense with Jones still recovering from his Lisfranc foot injury — proved to be “invaluable” now that he’ll take on a larger role in the Irish defense.
“He knows the defense pretty well,” Kelly said. “And the more he's here, the more he's comfortable with being put in that role of going out and playing as a freshman. So (it was) real big for us."
Still, Jones could prove to be a difficult player to replace. While coaches wanted to see more consistency from him, he was second on the team with seven and a half tackles for a loss in 11 games in 2014. Against Florida State, Jones frequently plowed into the backfield to terrorize Seminoles quarterback Jamies Winston in a game Notre Dame was one pass interference call away from winning.
Jones’ showing against Florida State left a lasting impression of him on a national stage, one he’ll have a chance to build upon a year from now.
“You play well for one fall here at Notre Dame, it's an on-Broadway play,” Kelly said. “Everybody's gonna see you. And just remind him of that — if he has a really good fall next year, he'll get plenty of suitors."