Our annual pre-draft series continues with a look at an explosive linebacker whose medical records have become a focus for NFL teams.
He plays with a reckless abandon that most of his peers can’t match. He’s also doing it at the risk of his post-football future.
There’s no questioning the talent of Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones at the NFL level, but there are plenty of questions surrounding his spine. At the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month, Jones answered more queries about his health than he did about his decorated college career.
Jones suffers from a condition called spinal stenosis, in which he has a slight narrowing of his spine between the C4 and C5 vertebrae, but the All-American is eager to prove he won’t be limited at the next level.
“Anybody who steps on that field has a chance of getting hurt,” Jones said. “If you think about it like that, nobody would ever play football. For me, I’m just taking advantage of the opportunity. I love this game. I’m passionate about it. I know that I’ve got to be careful about my technique and how I play this game.”
A prized high school recruit out of Columbus, Ga., Jones originally attended Southern California. But as a freshman in 2009, he suffered a stinger and was eventually diagnosed spinal stenosis. It would ultimately change the course of his life.
“I really didn’t know what it was. I was a freshman,” Jones said. “They were just telling me I can’t play football no more. Eight games out of high school it was devastating. It was kind of heartbreaking for me, being 2,000 miles from home. I went to USC to play football, and for them to tell me I couldn’t, I was a bit lost.”
Looking for a road map, Jones’ gaze turned back to his home state of Georgia.
He grew up about three hours away from the University of Georgia in Athens, eventually visiting the school and meeting coach Mark Richt after he couldn’t get cleared by USC’s medical staff. Jones was able to get clearance from a couple of spine specialists in his home state and then made transfer from Trojan to Bulldog.
Following a 2010 redshirt season at Georgia when he focused on building strength in his neck and shoulders, Jones blossomed into one of America’s premier players between the hedges. He posted back-to-back All-American seasons in 2011 and 2012, leading the nation in sacks (14.5), tackles-for-loss (24.5) and forced fumbles (7) his junior year.
“I feel like I’m an impact player. I make plays,” Jones said. “I love the game of football. I’m a great leader. Not so much a vocal leader, but showing. I think I bring versatility to the team. I can play SAM linebacker. I can play WILL linebacker. I can play 4-3. I can play a 3-4. I’m just going get after you. I’m going to get after the QB every play.”
Jones is easy to spot on film during the games. He’s the one with the long dreadlocks making tackles all over the field. The 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pound isn’t all brawn and no brains, though. He prides himself on his work ethic in the film room, too.
“I’m a student of the game. I prepare well,” Jones said. “I know what’s going on. I recognize formations. I find tendencies. I look at the small things that help me to play fast, play 100 percent the whole game and be relentless and just get after the ball.”
Sure, football is a huge part of Jones’ life right now, but it’s not the most important thing. First things first, Jones is concerned about his long-term health.
“If the doctors told me I couldn’t play today, I think I’ve had a great run and I would just take it for what it’s worth,” Jones said. “It would hurt me (not to play). I love this game. I’m passionate about this game. But I’d rather walk and enjoy myself and my family then not be able to walk away from this game.”
There’s no doubting Jones is a Top 10 talent, but his spinal issues have many wondering if teams could be scared off and let him drop out of the first round. Regardless, Jones is eager to show his stuff at the next level after fighting through adversity to get to this point.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘It’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive,’” Jones said. “No matter where you’ve come from or no matter what you’re going through, if you stay focused and stay confident, you can always be what you want to be.”