ATHENS -- It would help, Jarvis Jones is told politely but firmly, if he would go ahead and say something egotistical. Linebackers are supposed to ooze fierceness. And linebackers with his credentials are supposed to scowl as they say how many more sacks theyll get this year.
Jones doesnt get that. He is maddeningly nice. He is soft-spoken. He says hi to reporters while teammates avoid eye contact. He doesnt even think about going pro while Georgia teammates with less than half his credentials give it serious thought.
He was a consensus All-American last year. And the way he talks, it seems like he thinks he barely deserves to start.
He is the antithesis of Isaiah Crowell, the former Carver and Georgia teammate. Jones has had little handed to him in college. He had to make his way.
Im just blessed to be in this opportunity, to be in this position. I just dont know, Jones said. I went from not being able to play to making a lot of plays.
And for Jones, thats what it all goes back to.
It might seem he has the world at his feet now, those same feet that helped him to 13.5 sacks and 70 tackles last year. The feet that made him a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nations top defensive player. The smile that he flashed posing for photos with Andrew Luck and other luminaries as he did the award circuit after last season.
But the time he had football taken away from him is still fresh in Jones memory.
It happened after his freshman season at Southern California, where he had signed out of Carver-Columbus. Jones wanted to play for USC linebackers coach Ken Norton, a former NFL All-Pro linebacker. On a team loaded with talent, before the Reggie Bush scandal broke, Jones played as a backup outside linebacker and on special teams, recording 13 tackles in eight games.
But a neck injury sidelined him. The USC doctors werent going to clear him. It looked like he might not be able to play football.
I was one of those guys that always believed Im going to go to college, play football and go to the NFL. That was taken away from me in my first semester, Jones said.
He remembers being a regular student that second semester. Never mind the Bush scandal that was swirling at USC and would lead to probation and other players transferring. Jones was just worried about his own health.
He just went to class. He played basketball at the rec center with other students.
So it really dawned on me, I didnt know what was gonna be next move, he said. I just thought I was gonna be a regular student. And so that really matured me and made me realize that football is something special.
And for the first time in his life, he wasnt a football player. He was an onlooker.
The people that dont get a chance to play, I realize where that passion and everything comes from, fans and people that are supporters, I feel that passion, because Ive been on that side, Jones said. Thats what keeps me humble. And I realize that I have this second opportunity to be able to play.
Jones transferred back home to Georgia, whose doctors cleared him. For a year he sat out, per NCAA transfer rules. During the 2010 season, as the Bulldogs suffered their worst season in 14 years, Jones was just a rumor, a far-off hope, a player in a green No. 29 who could practice but do little else.
Then he become eligible last year. And the result was one of the best individual seasons in school history.
That could have been it. Jones could have bolted for the NFL and been a first-round pick, assuming teams werent scared off by the neck injury. But Jones ruled it out in November, two months before the deadline and stuck to hi decision.
I think a lot of people respect me because I respect a lot of people I come across, he said. I think I put myself in good situations to be around positive people. People understood me. They know I stayed to get better. They know I stayed to mature and become a better person outside of football.
Well, inside of football, too.
There is plenty still to work on, Jones said, but he talks in generalities. No talk of breaking David Pollacks single-season record of 14. No talk of winning the Butkus. Instead, Jones talks about developing a player, being a student of the game, bettering his craft.
Theres also this: Jones has to get better, because everyone is watching him. And by everyone, that means other offensive coordinator.
As a player, hes gotta understand that theres a lot of good coaches in this league, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. And theyre gonna say, All right, were not gonna let this guy wreck the game, and were gonna try to find ways to take him away.
Grantham spent time in the film room in the offseason, to work on those small things Jones talked about. Grantham points out that Jones has only played outside linebacker -- at least in this system -- for a year, so he can still learn about offensive formations and tendencies.
He is still a relatively inexperienced player, with only 14 college starts under his belt and 22 games overall.
Hes working harder than last year, Grantahm said. Not that he didnt work hard last year, but hes more focused in on, These are the things that I need to work on. Thats what good players do. Thats really been the approach with all of the older guys, Here are the areas where you need to improve.
This hasnt been the greatest offseason for Carver graduates with the program. Crowells dismissal was followed by Quintavius Harrow being ruled academically ineligible.
But Jones remains. He said he understands that people back in Columbus are counting on him. When he goes to little league games, he gets recognized.
A lot of people pay attention to me, he said. So I know that Im a big leader to them, Im a mentor to a lot of people. Thats why I always try to keep a clean slate, stay focused and stay a positive person.
Does it feel like pressure? No, Jones answers. He claims to take it in stride. He talks about wanting everyone to be great, leaving it unsaid that hes nearly at that point now. He leaves it unsaid because he might not even be thinking it.
But will there come a point where it finally starts to get to his head?
It wont, he said. As long as Ive got my family that keeps me grounded and remember where I come from. Because everything wasnt always this good. So youve gotta take it in stride and always remember where you come from. Thats what always keeps me motivated.