CELEBRATION, Fla. — Honed in.
It's a phrase Georgia defensive players like to use with each other, one they've parroted from their coordinator, Todd Grantham. Get focused. Get right. And among those Bulldogs, there's one linebacker — call him the Top Dawg — who sends that message stronger than the others.
“We've got to hone in and make the best of it,” says the two-time All-American, Jarvis Jones. He'll say it often, according to teammates who call him JJ.
Opposing coaches know him as No. 29. The SEC media picked him as the league's player of the year. Only Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o likely kept him from winning the Butkus, Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski Awards. And scribes who know the obstacles in his past — an older brother's death in 2005, a neck injury that forced him to transfer from USC to Georgia in 2010 — see a guy who honed in, despite the struggles.
As for Jones himself? Off the field, the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder is quiet, polite and to the point. The junior who finished with 12.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in just 11 games is soft-spoken, easygoing, even a little boring. “The nicest, most humble person,” is what wide receiver Chris Conley calls him.
“You wouldn't expect him to be this big superstar linebacker,” Conley said.
Peel the layers back of a player who's a surefire first-round NFL draft pick, and you hear teammates talk of him the way Nebraska players do about Rex Burkhead. And you see spectacular performances in big games — the kind Ndamukong Suh used to have.
“He's this extremely generous person,” Conley said. “Loves every single guy on this team. He talks to everyone. He hangs out with everyone.”
That's the Rex side.
The Suh side looks like this: As Florida this year appeared ready to score the game-tying touchdown in its fevered rivalry game, Jones peeled off of his rushing assignment, ran 13 yards downfield, waited until Florida wide receiver Jordan Reed jumped at the UGA 5, stutter-stepped, and stripped the ball out with his right hand. Georgia recovered in the end zone.
It was Jones' second forced fumble — and 13th tackle — of the game. He had four tackles for loss, too.
“Always running, always hustling,” said defensive end Cornelius Washington, recalling the play. “I was on the other side of the field and I'm looking at this whole thing happen as I'm running down there. I was like, had to be Jarvis. Got to be Jarvis.
“If anybody was going to make the play, it was going to be him. If anybody was going to save the game, it was going to be him.”
That Jones played for Georgia at all was a result of a neck injury he suffered at USC in 2009. Trojan doctors wouldn't clear him to play. The Bulldogs would. The Columbus, Ga., native came home. And went straight to the scout team for 2010, where he provided a significantly tougher look than the usual scrub.
“He worked every day,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He rallied the troops around him to have the best scout team look we could possibly have. ... He's made an impact ever since he walked on our campus.”
Jones jumped out of the practice pond and into college football's lake in 2011. In Georgia's 3-4 defense, he was asked to set the edge on running plays, turning opposing backs toward the inside linebackers, and come off the edge as fast as possible on passing downs.
When offensive tackles compensated for Jones' speed, he'd dip back inside. He notched four sacks — a school record — in the 2011 Florida game.
In 2012, he was the keystone to a defense that often had to shuffle lineups because of injuries or suspensions. Despite playing the whole game with a strained groin, he picked off a pass and forced a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Missouri game to set up two Georgia touchdowns. He wrecked Florida's national title hopes a few weeks later. Against Alabama — the nation's top offensive line, by recent reputation — he had six tackles, two sacks and another forced fumble.
When Georgia's defense is at its best, Jones said, it is sharp. Right. Honed in.
“We executed,” Jones said. “We were disciplined. We were focused. We eliminated the big plays and stopped the run.”
One of Jones' biggest strengths, Grantham said, is his instincts.
“If he sees a play once that happens later in the game, he knows what's happening,” Grantham said
Another strength, NU quarterbacks coach and graduate assistant Joe Ganz said, is Jones' ability to use his hands and mix physicality into his pass rush.
But defensive end Garrison Smith — who filled in for Jones at Saturday's player press conference — said at practice that Jones plays a bigger role as captain. As the guy who calms everybody down — and locks them back into the game.
“We might get rattled and he'll get everybody together and focused,” Smith said. “He'll say, 'Everybody, get right!' Couple of expletives might get said. Whatever it takes to get the 'D' fired up. Once he says what he has to say, everybody gets honed in.”
Selfishly, Smith said, he'd like to see Jones return for his senior year. But a spot snug inside of the NFL draft's first round awaits, and Smith said Jones has accomplished everything he could at this level.
“He's done so much here,” Smith said. “He really doesn't have anything else to accomplish. Sometimes you gotta be realistic with yourself. It's time for him to move on, accomplish bigger and better things.”
Richt recapped Jones' accomplishments more succinctly.
“Two years, two-time All-American,” Richt said. “How much more can you do?”
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