Jamir Jones almost redshirted this season.
With Notre Dame returning a deep stable of talented defensive ends that included Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes, Jones was low on the depth chart. The Irish thought highly of the senior and considered playing him in only four games this season so he could return next year, when that trio would be gone and the position would be thin.
Instead, the Rochester, New York, native has become a central player on Notre Dame's defensive line this season. A season-ending shoulder injury to Daelin Hayes thrust him into the rotation, and Saturday a broken leg for Okwara moved Jones into a first-string role.
“It's been a whirlwind,” Jones said of his senior season. “But you always gotta stay ready and be ready to make the most of your opportunity when it's given. That's what I try to do each and every day.
“Just trying to get that 1% better each and every day, that's all I'm worried about.”
Before Okwara went down against Duke, Jones, who has appeared in 40 games without ever starting, had already become a productive third option on the line.
He has six tackles for loss and four sacks this season, including a strip-sack against Virginia. Jones, who is Okwara's roommate, does not appear to be intimidated by a larger role.
“Trust in assignment and doing what he's asked to do and performance, he's about as good as we have on our football team,” coach Brian Kelly said of Jones. “Just a really smart football player, assignment-sound.
“Against Virginia Tech he was asked to stop the outside zone play against the quarterback, and at the same time, (cover) the tight end on the throwback. That's a tough assignment. We trusted him so much that he could do that dual assignment. That's how we feel about him.”
Jones' first career start will be against Navy's triple-option offense, which will force him and the rest of the Notre Dame defense to remain even more disciplined in their assignments than usual. The 21st-ranked Midshipmen have the No. 9 scoring offense in the country at more than 40 points per game.
For the Irish, slowing that offense down will require being attentive and not trying to make plays by themselves. That doesn't change without Okwara.
“Even with (Okwara), we'd still talk about doing your job,” said defensive end Ade Ogundeji, who also stands to gain snaps in the senior's absence. “But definitely with him out, we talk to younger guys about doing your job. That's what it's all about, just doing your job and doing what you have to do to help the team.
“All 11 guys do their job, we're going to be just fine Saturday.”
Note: Notre Dame junior tight end Cole Kmet and redshirt junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg announced their intention Tuesday to return for their final seasons of eligibility in 2020. Kmet is projected to be one of the top tight end prospects in the NFL draft if he leaves, and Eichenberg is a two-year starter for the Irish.
Notre Dame vs. Navy
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Records: Notre Dame (7-2); Navy (7-1)
Radio: 1190 AM, 107.5 FM