NOTRE DAME, Ind. - After sitting on the sideline on Saturdays and working as a scout team player as a freshman in 2012, there is at least one certainty about Jarron Jones - he is a physical specimen. Jones came to Notre Dame weighing-in at 299 pounds with a 6-foot-5 frame out of high school last fall and he is currently listed at a slightly trimmer 295.
Jones also brought with him lofty expectations out of Rochester, NY. He was rated as high as the number 20 overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class. What Jones did not bring with him to fall camp though was an aggressive practice style.
"Last year I was a little tentative," Jones said honestly of his first fall on campus. "Because I never played against college people my size. If you look at my (high school) highlight tape, everyone's smaller than me, but now I'm not the biggest any more. It was just a process of trying to get used to going against people who were bigger than me, stronger than me (and) faster than me."
Jones was a classic man among boys while playing for the Class A Aquinas Institute in New York. He ran roughshod over smaller players on a regular basis. He was so big and so physical that he even had to dial down his play in practice so he didn't hurt his less physically gifted and less aggressive high school teammates.
"Now I think of it as more fun," he said of practice. "There's no laying-off. I remember going half speed in practice and I caught myself doing it in some of my games too. That's the reason why there was such a drop off from my junior season to my senior season, because I was so used to laying-off."
Getting that physical aggressiveness back has been a high priority for Jones this spring. Fighting Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said recently that the biggest improvement the sophomore to be has shown in his first spring has been a more physical practice style that has allowed Jones to 'move his game forward' while continuing to adjust to facing bigger, more physical college players.
"Jarron was not necessarily ready for that next level competitiveness," Elston said of his defensive line pupil. "It wasn't because he was soft; he just wasn't quite ready for that mentally. Now he's gotten his game ready for that mentally."
"Now I look at it like this is fun, I like this," Jones said. "Now in practice I kind of see the stuff I struggled with last year has kind of been more my strengths now. Like pass rushing - pass rushing last year I could not do that at all."
Lower pad level, using his hands, getting off the line faster, and developing a better stance are all particulars Jones mentioned in helping refine his technique. In recent practice sessions the media has been able to see Elston has continued to tell Jones to distribute his weight more forward into his hand in his three-point stance rather than staying back in his feet.
"I'm starting to get more praise from coach now instead of being yelled at," Jones said. "(It was) like 'you have a long way to go'. Now I'm kind of feeling better about this."
The yelling by Elston has decreased, because the coach is starting to see Jones play closer to the level of the highly talented player the Irish recruited. Elston saw what he considered to be still a high school senior last fall, but he is now seeing a college freshman on the practice field.
"He's still just a freshman in college," Elston said candidly. "He was playing like a high school senior a year ago in terms of his immaturity (and) his lack of aggressiveness. He's got this great big body and he's starting to throw that around and become more of an aggressive player. He wasn't a soft player by any means, but he just wasn't as aggressive as we needed him to be."
On-field technique is not the only adjustment Jones has had to make in his time on the Notre Dame campus. His first winter workout this past January with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo was a wake-up call as well.
"The first workout we had I almost died, literally," Jones said with a laugh. "I was like 'how did I get through this?'. Now I realize that it's just mentally preparing me for the season, because it's daunting playing such a tough schedule that we have. I just feel like everything coach Kelly and the staff is doing is making me a better player and a better person."
Some recruiting analysts saw him as a possible offensive lineman in college. Jones even thought he might get moved to offense when he sat out as a freshman. Instead, he was kept at defensive end - a position where he and classmate Sheldon Day provided more depth after the transfer of Aaron Lynch last spring.
With Stephon Tuitt on the left side, Jones practiced primarily behind Kapron Lewis-Moore at right end. Day is now at the top of the depth chart on that side, but Jones' time spent with Lewis-Moore both on the practice field and off the field was invaluable.
"I kind of looked to him as a second dad," Jones said of his former teammate and defensive captain. "He just pretty much took me under his wing (and) helped me out a lot."
"He even had a conversation with my mom behind my back," Jones intimated. "I got pissed off at my mom for it one time, but then I realized she was just trying to look out for me and he was just trying to look out for me. That helped me instill trust with him, because if you're cool with my mom I gotta love you."
Elston expects Jones to "factor in" during the 2013 season. Fellow defensive lineman Tony Springmann played multiple spots on the defensive line last year, and Elston thinks Jones could fill a similar utility role this season. For now, Jones knows he must keep refining his game to turn his raw talent into playing time on Saturdays.
"(I have to) just keep applying my technique, learning the plays and making sure I know what I'm doing," Jones self-evaluated. "(It is) just small stuff like that, but I kind of feel like I've made a dramatic improvement from last year to this year."