SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame redshirt junior nose guard Jarron Jones remains on track to return from what was initially thought to be a season-ending injury and play New Year's Day in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
Jones, who tore his MCL during preseason practice in August, took about 15 reps on Saturday. Coach Brian Kelly said the challenge with getting Jones back on the field involves building up his strength so he can play with the kind of leverage necessary to make an impact in the trenches, but sounded confident about being able to deploy Jones against Ohio State's powerful, efficient offense.
At his best, Jones is an interior menace who can not only soak up double teams but plow his way into the backfield. His best game was last year at Florida State, when he spent much of the first half chasing Jameis Winston out of the pocket as Notre Dame nearly knocked off the defending champions.
While freshman Jerry Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage were solid in place of Jones, it's an open-ended question as to what Notre Dame's defense would've gained had a healthy Jones joined defensive tackle Sheldon Day (14 1/2 tackles for a loss, four sacks), defensive end Romeo Okwara (12 1/2 tackles for a loss, eight sacks) and defensive end Isaac Rochell (seven and a half tackles for a loss, one sack) this fall.
Kelly saw a glimpse of it during Notre Dame's first few bowl practices and said there could be a major payoff for Day and Okwara by having Jones play against Ohio State.
"One of the things I saw that is pretty clear is his ability from that shade position to push the pocket that we really missed," Kelly said. "(It) really would’ve helped us with Sheldon coming off the edge and Romeo, we didn’t have that hard inside push, which he gives you instantly. I think we’re going to be able to get that from him."
Even if Jones is, at the least, only able to take a handful of snaps against Ohio State, getting that push would be important, especially in those third-and-long scenarios in which the Buckeyes' offense hasn't been too effective. Notre Dame's front four was its strongest defensive unit this fall, and while getting Jones back won't entirely cover for a KeiVarae Russell-less secondary that's allowed far too many big plays this year, any additional pressure Keith Gilmore's group can get on J.T. Barrett will be key in a game that Notre Dame probably will have to win in a shootout.
Ohio State's defense took a hit, though, when senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl for a violation of team rules — widely reported to be stemming from the Cincinnati native's arrest on soliciting for prostitution charges earlier this month. Washington notched seven tackles for a loss and four sacks in the middle of a line headlined by defensive end Joey Bosa that, on its own, averaged about two sacks per game.
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Sparingly used sophomores Tracy Sprinkle and Donovan Munger will probably fill in for Washington against Notre Dame. But even though both players weren't able to consistently crack the Buckeyes' defensive line rotation this fall, Kelly isn't expecting much of a dropoff in the Fiesta Bowl.
"He’s a really good football player but they’re a lot like Alabama, a lot like some of the great defenses — they’re going to roll out another really good football player," Kelly said. "We weren’t running around the office high-fiving. We didn’t think they were going to put a JV player in there."