TWO AND A
half years and more than 2,000 miles ago, Jarvis Jones
was just another washed-up football player, shooting pickup hoops at a Southern California gym. After eight promising games as a true freshman linebacker for USC, Jones was sidelined indefinitely with a neck injury, barred from putting on his pads or helmet. "It was," he says, "depressing."
The injury occurred against Oregon on Halloween in 2009. By all accounts, it was a routine hit, but after staying on the turf for a few seconds, he was removed from the game. Within days, he found himself in the hospital, where a specialist told him he had a "mild" case of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. "I've seen this over and over again," Jones remembers the doctor saying. "If you play the game long enough, things like this will happen."
The doctor told Jones he would be fine and he could play again. But the Trojans' team doctors thought the injury was much more serious and refused to clear him for contact; they eventually recommended that Jones retire from football. So the then-20-year-old spent his days wandering from class to the basketball gym to the weight room. "Just like a regular student," he says. Just a 6'3", 241-pound student who considered trying out for USC's basketball team.
"But in my head," Jones says, "I never let go of the fact that the first specialist told me I'd be okay."
In fact, he's been better than okay. Now an All-American for the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs
, Jones is arguably the best defender in college football, a master of technique with a sixth sense for tracking down quarterbacks. A year after leading the SEC with 13.5 sacks, Jones has continued to camp out in opponents' backfields this season. Following a 41-20 win over Missouri on Sept. 8, in which Jones had two sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles, ESPN Insider Mel Kiper Jr. moved Jones to the top of his NFL draft Big Board
, where he remains. More than on athleticism and strength, though, Jones will tell you he excels because of a certain learned relentlessness. "Every film session, every rep in the weight room, every play," Jones says, "I treat it like it's my last. Going through what I've gone through, I understand you never know when it's all going to be taken away."