ATHENS, Ga. -- As crazy as it might seem, Jarvis Jones believes he can become a much more consistent performer this season.
Why, after being named a first-team All-American and leading the SEC with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, might he believe that? Because last season was the first time in his career when his primary duty was to chase down quarterbacks.
Let that sink in for a moment. The most effective pass-rusher in the nation’s top defensive conference was learning on the job last season, having never played a pass-rushing position at any point in his football career. So instead of leaving school early to become a likely NFL first-round pick, Jones returned to Georgia to become a more well-rounded player.
“I think what a lot of people didn’t notice, this year was my first year being a pass-rusher, so I think a lot of everything that I did experience was my first time experiencing,” Jones said. “So that’s why I said I wanted to come back to school and work on everything, mature more and be a better pass-rusher and be consistent.”
His offseason objective was to refine his technique and learn the small things outside linebackers typically learn at a younger age. Jones and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham knew that he needed to make those adjustments, because he won’t sneak up on anybody this season. Opposing offenses will most certainly game plan specifically to neutralize Jones’ pass-rushing skills.
“There’s a lot of good coaches in this league. They’re going to know where he is and they’re going to try to find ways to take him out of the game,” said Grantham, who noted that his Dallas Cowboys dealt with similar issues when opponents schemed to stop star outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. “So he’s got to understand that and be ready for that.”
Jones is ready for that -- hence the focus on fundamentals that might help him reach the quarterback even more quickly.
“A quarterback watches film, so he knows what you do,” Jones said. “He knows that if you’re a good pass-rusher, the quarterback’s going to know where you are so he isn’t going to hold the ball long to let you hit him.”
Considering his football history, Jones’ rapid ascent toward college stardom is fairly remarkable.
Jones had actually never played defense, period, until shifting from tight end to linebacker during his junior year at Carver High School in Columbus, Ga., helping his team win the 2007 state championship. He did not grow up as much of a football fan, so coach Dell McGee and his staff had to cajole, threaten and beg Jones to moonlight on their football team when he wasn’t playing his chosen sport, basketball.
McGee obviously saw the football potential Jones possessed, but he also recognized the quiet leadership skills that could help his team achieve its championship goals. Jones has never been the outspoken type, but teammates seem to rally around the good-natured star.
“Everyone’s not a leader and some people have to work at it. For him it’s just a natural deal,” McGee said. “He’s very sociable and he knows what’s important as far as on and off the football field and trying to get those guys to buy into the team concept, because he’s definitely a team player.”
Carver has sent dozens of players to the college level since McGee became its coach, but Jones stands out above all of them for McGee because of his willingness to do the right thing and his commitment to the program.
“He’s my favorite that I’ve coached. He’s No. 1 for me,” McGee said. “It’s just what everyone else sees. He’s just a very likeable person. I haven’t found a person to say, ‘I dislike Jarvis Jones.’ He’s a great guy.”
That magnetic personality might be one of the key factors in Georgia’s No. 6 ranking -- because the Bulldogs would not be entering this season with such high preseason expectations if Jones and some of the other defensive standouts had opted to leave early for the NFL.
But he announced after exploding onto the national scene with a four-sack outing against Florida last season that he would not consider jumping for the NFL and never wavered. A few months later, every draft-eligible defensive player -- several of whom were sure-fire draft prospects -- gathered in Georgia’s team meeting room and announced collectively that they would return for the 2012 season.
“With Jarvis saying that, I feel like this whole upcoming senior class just got dialed in like, ‘You know what? If we all stay here and stick together, we can make this thing happen next year,’ ” senior linebacker Michael Gilliard said. “I feel like Jarvis and his whole situation was definitely one of the reasons that the whole senior class decided to dial in and stay for all of us this year.”
Senior nose guard John Jenkins agreed, saying, “With him staying, people were like, ‘Well, if J.J. stayed and me and another guy stayed, then we could have something going.’ ”
For his part, Jones said he didn’t try to persuade teammates to stick around, necessarily. He spoke with players who were on the fence like safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams and reminded them that Georgia’s defense could be special this fall -- and that they would be key pieces -- but he supported them no matter what they decided.
“I never tried to persuade them to go either way,” Jones said, “but they know what we had here coming back, so I just told them whatever decision they make, if they decide to go pro, I’m always going to be in their corner and believe in them and wish the best for them, but if they came back, we’re going to try to take this thing up another level and try to be the best defense in the nation.”
That brings us to this week, with every defensive underclassman following Jones’ lead and staying with the Bulldogs. Having ranked fifth in the nation in total defense a year ago, the Bulldogs hope another dominant season by the defense can propel them to an SEC championship and perhaps a BCS crown.
If Jones matches last year’s performance -- much less exceeds it -- they might just reach those goals. He certainly believes it’s possible, because he knows what he’s doing now instead of flying blind at a position he’s never played before.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at first. I didn’t have no moves, I didn’t have no technique, so I was just using my athletic ability and my speed to just run around linemen,” Jones said. “But as time went on, I started watching more film, Coach Grantham started sitting me down and I was getting things that he was telling me.
“… Over time I started realizing what was going on, and in the game I can see it and get a feel for it, and that really elevated my game.”