SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame defensive tackle Jarron Jones is suddenly a disruptive force for a defense that is playing solidly after a dismal start.
With time running out on his collegiate career, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound graduate student from Rochester, New York, has helped the Irish defense go from giving up 461 yards a game through the first five games to 267 yards per game the past three. Jones is knocking offensive linemen back and looking like the lineman who first drew attention two years ago for his standout play against second-ranked Florida State when he had six tackles, three for loss, in a 31-27 defeat.
Jones had two block kicks and an interception earlier this season, but stepped up his play with a strip-sack fumble recovery against Stanford two games ago, followed by making seven tackles in a 30-27 victory on Saturday against Miami, six of them for loss - the most by any FBS player this season.
''I think that's about as good a performance that we've had in a while here. Jarron was outstanding,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Kelly attributes the improved play to Jones no longer being worried about the torn MCL in his right knee that caused him to miss all of last season except against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, and a sense of urgency with time running out to impress NFL scouts. Kelly said Jones, who admits that until this year he didn't like practice, has been consistently working hard for about five weeks.
''I've been very, very pleased with the way he has matured this year into the kind of senior that you'd want on your football team,'' Kelly said.
Jones agrees with Kelly that he's playing better because he's no longer worried about his knee, but he's also no longer worried about making mistakes. Jones said since defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired after the Duke game, the defense is less afraid to make mistakes.
''I'm just going out there and letting it go completely. There was always a worry, `I can't jump out of my gap. I don't want to let the center or the guard climb to the next level,''' he said. ''Now I know I'm just as capable of making plays just as well as the linebackers are. So I'm just going out there, dominating my job.''
Kelly said he is constantly talking to Jones to make sure he is focused.
''We have constant conversations, Jarron and I,'' Kelly said. ''Look, Jarron is extremely affable, he's got a big heart. After a monster game, he was trick or treating as Snow White here in the Gug. He's a beautiful kid. But he has to be reminded of the day-to-days, and that's my job.''
The Irish (3-5) are counting on Jones to have another big game against Navy (5-2) on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, even though he concedes he hates playing against option teams.
''This is awful. I'm going to be honest, I despise the triple option,'' he said.
Asked whether facing the option would be a strength for Jones, Kelly replied: ''It had better be a strength of his. He's got all the NFL teams now interested in him. So I don't think he wants bad NFL film now. I hope he's listening.''
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