ATHENS, Ga. --
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 tell you how many more sacks they'll get this year.
Jones doesn't get that. He is maddeningly nice. He is soft-spoken. He says hi to reporters while teammates avoid eye contact. He doesn't 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. Jones has had little handed to him in college. He had to make his way.
"I'm just blessed to be in this opportunity, to be in this position. I just don't know," Jones said. "I went from not being able to play to making a lot of plays."
And for Jones, that's what it all goes back to.
It may 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 nation's top linebacker. 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. 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, making 13 tackles in eight games.
But a neck injury sidelined him. The USC doctors weren't going to clear him. It looked like he might not play football again.
"I was one of those guys that always believed I'm 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 didn't know what was going to be next move," he said. "I just thought I was going to be a regular student. And so that really matured me and made me realize that football is something special."
For the first time in his life, he wasn't a football player. He was a spectator.
"The people that don't 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 I've been on that side," Jones said. "That's what keeps me humble. And I realize that I have this second opportunity to be able to play."
Returning closer to home
Jones transferred back home to Georgia, where 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 guy in a green No. 29 who could practice but do little else.
Then he became 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 weren't scared off by the neck injury. But Jones ruled it out in November, two months before the deadline, and stuck to it.
"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 Pollack's 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.
There's also this: Jones has to get better, because everyone is watching him. And by everyone, that means other offensive coordinators.
"As a player, he's got to understand that there's a lot of good coaches in this league," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "And they're going to say: 'All right, we're not going to let this guy wreck the game."
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.
"He's working harder than last year," Grantham said.
"Not that he didn't work hard last year, but he's more focused in on: These are the things that I need to work on. That's what good players do."
Jones feels no pressure
This hasn't been the greatest offseason for Carver grads: Crowell's 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 I'm a big leader to them, I'm a mentor to a lot of people.
"That's 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 he's nearly at that point now. He leaves it unsaid because he may not even be thinking it.
But will there come a point where it finally starts to get to his head?
"It won't," he said. "As long as I've got my family that keeps me grounded and remember where I come from. Because everything wasn't always this good. So you've got to take it in stride and always remember where you come from. That's what always keeps me motivated."