Jarvis Jones proves his worth and finds his home at UGA

During a recruiting trip to Florida this offseason, Todd Grantham bumped into Monte Kiffin, the veteran defensive coordinator now coaching with his son at Southern California.

“I said, ‘Hey, thanks for Jarvis,’” said Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “He was like, ‘Uggh. How ’bout that one?”

Bulldogs fans are thanking their lucky stars that Jarvis Jones landed at Georgia after his football career was left in doubt.

The roundabout way that Jones came to Georgia’s doorstep may have been forgotten by some, replaced instead by the footsteps quarterbacks now hear when Jones chases them down in the pocket.

The outside linebacker certainly isn’t taking for granted the circuitous route he took from Columbus to Athens via Los Angeles.

“I’m just so blessed to have this opportunity, to be in this position, man,” Jones said. “I went from not being able to play to making a lot of plays.”

On Halloween night in 2009, Jones suffered a spinal injury trying to make a tackle at Oregon during his freshman season.

It turned out to be the last snap he ever played for the Trojans.

The school would not clear him medically to participate in spring practice and he later asked for and was granted a release to transfer. After undergoing a battery of tests at Georgia, he found a new home back in his home state.

“Sometimes things have to happen to turn other situations to great situations,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t take anything back. I’m glad I’m here. I’m happy I’m here. I love being here. I love the people here. It’s just been a blessing and a great opportunity for me.”

 

The defining injury

 

Lane Kiffin admits he’s wondered what if.

After one season as head coach at Tennessee, he bolted for the USC job.

Two seasons later, the Trojans are expected to be among the top contenders for the national title with quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Robert Woods leading the way.

But Kiffin has wondered why Jones, a consensus All-American last year in his one and only season at Georgia, isn’t still wearing the Trojans’ cardinal and gold.

“Yeah, a lot,” Kiffin said laughing. “Especially when we saw one of the preseason draft (projections), I think it was in USA Today. The first three guys were Matt Barkley, Jarvis Jones and Robert Woods. They could all be on the same team. Yeah, it was a big blow.”

Jones said he was diagnosed at USC with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. He said he was asked to take a medical disqualification.

Jones played as a freshman for Pete Carroll, who left for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Kiffin arrived on the scene that winter.

“We were very excited about him,” Kiffin said. “He had made some plays as a true freshman for the previous staff. I had cut some of that stuff up and watched him. We were excited and felt like he was going to be a phenomenal player.”

Jones suffered the injury in the eighth game that same season.

“I was blitzing off the edge, the quarterback saw me coming and checked down to the receiver,” Jones said. “Our cornerback was on the other side of him and when I got to him, he fell to the ground and I went to hit him and I ended up hitting my teammate in the hip with the crown of my head.”

Jones got up and walked off the field, but the trainers met him. He felt weakness in his knees and shoulder.

Kiffin called Jones being unable to play “an extremely big deal.”

Kiffin told reporters prior to spring practice in 2010: “There’s a serious concern that hits or a number of hits could lead to permanent damage. Obviously, Jarvis’ safety is the No. 1 issue.”

In an interview this June, Kiffin declined to comment further, citing privacy laws.

“The law for student-athletes when they’re here and even when they’re gone really prohibits me from saying anything at all.”

Jones went from coveted recruit — the No. 3 rated player in Georgia in 2009 — to unable to play.

“I was one of those guys that thought, ‘I’m going to play football, go to college and then go to the NFL,’” he said. “That was taken away from me in the first semester. The second semester I was a regular student. I didn’t have to go to class. I didn’t have to go training. I didn’t have to go to practice. I was in the little rec center with the rest of the students playing basketball every day. It really dawned on me. I didn’t even know what was going to be my next move.”

 

Getting clearance

 

Dell McGee, Jones’ coach at Carver High in Columbus, said he contacted Georgia, Auburn and Florida State to let them know Jones was looking to transfer and wanted to be close to home. He was released from his scholarship on June 2, 2010 and also considered other schools.

That summer was the first at Georgia for Grantham, who looked at some tape of Jones and made some phone calls.

He checked with Will Muschamp, then the defensive coordinator at Texas who had recruited Jones out of high school.

He called Ken Norton, Jones’ position coach at Southern Cal who also left for Seattle. Jones considered him a mentor and said he was the reason why he picked the Trojans.

Grantham also spoke to Carroll.

He wanted to gauge Jones’ work ethic and what they thought of the potential of a player who had 13 tackles in eight games as a backup his freshman year.

“Those guys were right on,” Grantham said. “Those guys felt like he was a guy that was a definite end-of-the-line player, outside linebacker that had some huge upside. Then when you meet him and see his personality, you immediately like him.”

Grantham and Jones got to know each other better over breakfast on a trip Jones took to Athens over a couple of days.

“Cracker Barrel, I think it was,” Grantham said. “He’s trying to look for a place that he feels comfortable, that can help him reach the goals he wants to reach. As a coach and as a coordinator, it was really more him getting to know me initially and then showing him, ‘Here are the things you can do for us. Here are the things that we can develop in you. Here’s the things that I see that you do well. Here’s the things that I think you can improve upon and here’s how I think you can do that.’”

Jones also had to get examined by Georgia’s medical staff at the hospital in Athens during that June visit.

Georgia coach Mark Richt spent the day with him when he underwent tests at a hospital.

“I just wanted to support him through it,” Richt said.

“We spent a lot of time together,” Jones said. “We learned about each other a whole lot.”

Jones said while still at USC, three doctors — one in California, one in Georgia and one in North Carolina — had cleared him medically to continue to play football. He said his mother had sent a disc with X-rays on it to them.

“So I was like, ‘Why am I not getting cleared here to play?’” he said.

Georgia did clear him, but he had to sit out the 2010 season under NCAA transfer rules. He worked on the scout team.

That was fine with Jones because it allowed his body and mind more time to prepare for what was to come in 2011.

“I won’t have any worries, I won’t have any fears,” he said back then. “I can just play free-minded and play ball.”

 

Learning to love the game

 

Jones may seem like a natural to fly around on the football field and be a force after racking up an SEC-leading totals of 13 ¬Ω sacks and 19 ¬Ω tackles for loss last season, but he had to first fall in love with the sport.

“I hated football,” Jones said. “I wasn’t dedicated. I had no passion for it.”

Jones, now 22, was born in Columbus but raised in Lumpkin in Stewart County near Fort Benning.

“We always played basketball in my neighborhood,” he said.

Jones laughed when asked who raised him.

“Oh, man, I’ve got a lot of supporters,” he said

Those include Tony Adams, his AAU coach, his mother Gloria Dowdell and godmother Shelley Stephens.

Jones isn’t close to his father, but said he sees him from time to time.

“There’s a group of people close to Jarvis,” McGee said. “That circle still remains. … He owes a lot of gratitude to all of the individuals he’s kind of come in contact with from middle schools to high school that have kind of paved the way in a sense and kind of guided some of his decision making.”

Jones played some football in his neighborhood, but didn’t play organized sports until the fifth grade when he joined Adams’ AAU travel basketball team. The NCAA looked into Jones relationship with Adams in the summer of 2011 and found he received no extra benefits.

“Clearly I wasn’t,” said Jones, who had a pre-existing relationship with Adams. “They are a part of my family just like the rest of my family.”

While working out with the Carver basketball team. McGee and assistant Delray Stephens talked to Jones — already big at 6-foot — about playing football.

Jones said coaches would make him walk around the track during practices. Sometimes he would sneak off and go to basketball practice and coaches would have to come get him.

“I was just a gym rat,” Jones said. “That’s what I loved to do and that’s what I thought I wanted to do at the next level or with my career.”

McGee said coaches told Jones that with his skill-set he could thrive as a football player. All he needed was to get stronger and work hard in the sport.

“It translated into his performance on the field,” McGee said.

Jones started as a tight end as a sophomore — making a 58-yard touchdown catch in the state semifinals at the Georgia Dome — and Clemson offered him a scholarship that season. But he really “came out of his shell” his junior season, when he played linebacker and helped lead Carver to a state championship, McGee said.

College recruiters were in hot pursuit. Georgia sent five coaches to his spring game before his senior season.

They were among his five finalists.

But those Georgia coaches had to wait a couple of years for Jones to wear the red and black.

 

‘I’m a Dawg’

 

This is the good life now for Jones.

Spring break in Panama City, Fla.

Weekend barbecues and hitting the pool with buddies Bacarri Rambo and Mike Gilliard.

“It doesn’t take a lot for me to relax and chill,” he said.

Netflix with roommate Cornelius Washington will do the trick.

Jones likes documentaries. “Locked Up Abroad” on National Geographic is good. “Swamp People” on History channel, about alligator hunters in Louisiana, is better.

“I watch Swamp People every day,” he said. “I love Swamp People.”

Jones, majoring in human development and family science, is on track to graduate from Georgia next summer.

By then, he probably will be on an NFL roster. He’s already projected as a top-10 pick by many analysts.

“He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached,” said McGee, who played cornerback at Auburn and coached Carver to a AAA state title. “Not just from an athletic standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. He’s just a very impressionable young man. When he walks into the room, he kind of becomes friends with everyone there. Just a very likeable young man. Those traits are going to take him very far.”

In the one season when Jones redshirted, those around the program were talking about the type of influence he was already having in the locker room.

Georgia fans climbed aboard the Jones bandwagon last season when he rang up sacks and quickly put to bed any talk of making a jump to the NFL draft, announcing during the season that he was staying put and bypassing the draft.

“He should be popular because he’s highly productive,” Richt said. “People like that. And just how he handled that NFL thing last year. It spoke volumes to everybody about what kind of guy he is, not only to the Bulldog Nation, but to us as a staff, as teammates. That was pretty unique in this day and age I think. The guy’s sincere. He’s not trying to crate some kind of persona, that’s just who he is.”

Now, he’s joined quarterback Aaron Murray in being the face of the program.

Jones’ face could be found on billboard spots purchased by the athletic association in Northeast Georgia and the Atlanta area.

“Everybody would be calling me, texting me, sending me different pictures of billboards,” Jones said.

Georgia fans can enjoy Jones at least for one more season and relish that they have him.

And Jones seems poised to be a first-round pick if he can continue to produce.

“The National Football League is really about affecting the quarterback with the rush and guys that can rush bring more value than other people,” Grantham said. “He has a great opportunity this year in the sense that if he can show the consistency this year with what he did last year, now you’ve got a guy that’s done it two years in a row in the best conference in the country.”

The injury stays with Jones to a certain extent. He said Georgia director of sports medicine Ron Courson stays on him about proper tackling technique.

“I took initiative myself in the year that I sat out to clean up my technique,” Jones said. “Still to this day, I still work on it. … We’re doing everything here, me and the (medical) staff, to keep me healthy.”

Jones now represents Georgia on and off the field.

He got a Georgia “G” in white gold put on a bottom crown last year when he underwent a root canal.

“I don’t know too many people that got a ‘G’ in their mouth,” he said. “I’m a Dawg.”

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