Two years ago, Jarvis Jones almost saw all his hopes disappear right before him.
For a moment, it looked as if he might lose it all.
“Absolutely there was frustration,” he said. “As a young man, all you think about is football. You have dreams of having that defining moment of going to college and playing football. After my first year, they were telling me that was taken away from me.”
Finding a love for football
Jones is the first to admit he did not always possess a fervent love for the game.
“It was kind of crazy. When I got to high school, I always wanted to play basketball. I hated football,” he said. “They ended up making me play football my freshman year. I played a little bit, but I hated it so I always went through the motions.”
It took a sit-down with his head coach and a whole year of loafing before Jones really dedicated himself to football in his sophomore season at Carver High School in Columbus.
“They told me, ‘Don’t limit yourself. You can’t be able to play basketball all your life,” he said. “You shouldn’t limit yourself because football players get more opportunities than basketball players, what with in colleges there might be 125 football players on the team, while in basketball you might only have 13 or 14, so you’re better off getting a football scholarship.”
After that season, he finally found a reason to continue playing.
“Whenever I do something, I always want to become great at it,” he said. “My sophomore year I fell in love with it because we had so much fun — practice was fun, we were winning and I just fell in love with it.”
Though he couldn’t see his own potential at the time, those around him certainly did.
“I didn’t have that vision, but a lot of people who mentored me always told me how good I could be or the opportunities I could have if I got on the right track and started doing things right. A lot of people had seen that before me, but being young you really just envision what’s going on now. You don’t really see what the future holds for you.”
When he was given the opportunity to play linebacker his junior year, Jones began to blossom, accumulating more than 150 tackles with 26 tackles-for-loss. His senior season he was named a Prep Star All-American, despite missing games at the end of the season with injuries.
The door had opened and opportunity already seemed to have arrived in grand form for the graduating linebacker.
Though Jones has become one of the prominent faces of the Georgia Bulldogs defense this season, his collegiate career actually started far away from Sanford Stadium.
In fact, it began with a decision to move away from home in Columbus to the glaring lights of Los Angeles.
“I decided to go to [the University of Southern California] because of coach Ken Norton,” Jones said. “I thought he was one of the fine linebacker coaches at the time for me. I thought he was a great mentor and someone who could build me up and put me in good position to become a good player.”
But just as Jones began to find a semblance of comfort within the system of then-head coach Pete Carroll, the true freshman linebacker suffered one of the worst injuries any player can have — a neck injury.
Doctors said there were considerable concerns, that one or multiple hits could lead to severe nerve damage with potentially life-threatening ramifications.
Though Jones insisted he could continue playing after consulting multiple outside doctors, the University of Southern California medical staff still refused to clear him to play.
After doing everything he could to get back on the field, Jones realized that his only option was to transfer or he might not play again.
He realized that he was going to need someone — anyone — to take a chance on him.
“After my freshman year didn’t work out, I was just so glad and blessed that Coach Richt gave me that second opportunity,” he said.
A Second Chance
“When I got here I didn’t care where I played — inside or outside. I just said to put me wherever I could help this team, put me there,” Jones said.
At first that meant being a part of the scout team, whose sole purpose was to prepare the first team offense for Saturday.
Together, he and running back-turned-linebacker Richard Samuel formed what Richt would later call one of the most talented scout team linebacker pairs he had ever seen.
“We were teaching each other, having fun and at the same time we wanted the offense to get better,” Jones said. “You gotta love Richard because he’s a hard worker, he likes to learn, and he’s passionate about the game.”
Though he wasn’t allowed to play in games due to NCAA transfer regulations, Jones’ experience on the scout team allowed him time to mature physically and mentally from the mistakes of his freshman year.
“I definitely matured just playing a different position as well as getting different coaching, playing different techniques,” Jones said. “Once you start learning, the game slows down and you can anticipate what they are going to do, and that helps you play a lot faster.”
Throughout the whole process of healing and learning a new system at a new school, Jones reminded himself of the opportunity he had almost lost.
“It’s my motivation now just every time you get on that field, you’ve got to give everything you got, because it’s just like they say — you are only one play away from not playing and football can be taken away from you.”
The coach who made it all work
When Jones arrived in Athens, he had mostly played inside linebacker in high school and in his first year of college football.
However, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham saw the potential for even greater success at a different position.
“He started out as an inside guy,” Grantham said, “When I saw his twitch, and his relentless approach to the ball, and the way he could come off the ball, I just felt like he would better suit us being an outside guy.”
The switch to playing the weak outside linebacker, called “Will” in the 3-4, allowed Jones to use the wide variety of skills that he possessed.
“He’s still a young player,” Grantham said. “I think the thing with him is that he is a very complete linebacker. Some guys can rush the passer, some guys can cover, but the thing is that he can do both.”
Jones insisted he didn’t always view himself as a pass rusher and that he didn’t even know why he had so much success at getting to the quarterback.
“I never thought I would be in the position to rush the passer — I always thought I was an inside linebacker. I got here and Coach Grantham saw it in me,” Jones said. “He spent so much time with us just trying to make us better and like I said he is just so passionate about the game you can almost put our cleats and pads on him and he can go out there and do the same thing.”
Though Grantham may not be lacing up any time soon, the former NFL coordinator was able to shed light on Jones’ ability.
“I think he’s a pretty humble guy. I think he has some explosiveness to him,” Grantham said. “Whatever his strength is I think he maximizes it the way he strikes guys, because when he hits them he has some explosive power.”
With Grantham and Jones working together, the Bulldogs have emerged into one of the top defenses in the country.
“I think me and Coach Grantham have a connection,” Jones said. “When Coach wants us to make a play, he comes to me, and I go to my teammates and we make it happen. I think I’ve got the best coaching in football right now. He knows how to get his players into position to make plays, find tendencies, formations — all of that stuff.”
Here to stay
In a season where he has enjoyed far greater success than he could have imagined before, Jones has only been reminded of how lucky he was to be able to return to the game that he loved.
“I can’t speak about how much I love football,” Jones said. “I love football, I’m very passionate about it and it’s just unbelievable. Coach Richt was just gracious to give me this opportunity and I’m just trying to make the best out of it and try to make him proud.”
After being named National Defensive Player of the Week for his four-sack effort against Florida this past weekend, Jones could be presented with the option to jump to the National Football League as early as next season.
As a redshirt sophomore, he would be eligible for such a move under NCAA regulations.
However, Jones isn’t walking out the door any time soon.
“I’m going to be here as long as I can. I love the University, I love the guys here and I love being in Athens,” Jones said. “Right now, I don’t think I’m ready to play in the NFL anyway. I’ve still got a lot to learn.”