ATHENS, Ga. - Jarvis Jones’ emergence as one of the Southeastern Conference’s top defensive players may seem out of nowhere. But his talent was evident three years ago: Home-state Georgia wanted him badly. Southern California was another suitor.

And so was another high-profile national program.

“We recruited him,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We know him.”

“Coach Miles is a great guy, loves football, loves his players, just loves having great players,” Jones said. “We spent quite a bit of time to together talking when I was down there, just talking football and life, just going over stuff.”

They will get re-acquainted Saturday at the Georgia Dome, when LSU and Georgia meet in the SEC Championship Game.

Jones, a redshirt sophomore, has made a national name for himself at Georgia, where he leads the SEC and ranks second in the nation with 13.5 sacks. He’s one of three finalists for the Butkus award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.

But the road to this point has had several hurdles: One year at Southern California, where he played but didn’t get extensive playing time. A neck injury that could have ended his playing career. And an investigation into possible improper benefits during the summer that temporarily put his Georgia future in doubt.

“Jarvis has endured a lot in his life,” said Dell McGee, who coached Jones at Carver High School in Columbus, Ga. “He’s just a beautiful person. I don’t know anybody that knows Jarvis that doesn’t like him.”

It was McGee who helped convince Jones to concentrate on football. Jones preferred basketball, but at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he would have been an undersized power forward; McGee pointed out to Jones he would still make a whale of a linebacker.

So the scholarship offers poured in. But Jones opted to play at USC because of then-linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., who had a long playing career in the NFL.

Jones played eight games as a true freshman, finishing with 13 tackles, but no sacks. Then the NCAA sanctions hit USC. But it was a neck injury, and just being homesick, that also pushed Jones to transfer.

USC doctors didn’t clear Jones to return. But Georgia coaches told Jones that if he transferred back home, he could be a student assistant coach even if he were never cleared medically.

That didn’t end up being an issue. Jones’ neck healed, and he spent last season starring on the scout team, the coaches wishing they could use him during a 6-7 season.

“He’s kind of a quiet guy that works hard,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I think he’s a complete outside linebacker, both rushing and dropping (into pass coverage). ? He’s one of the guys that when you watch, he really pursues to the ball, hustles, and he plays the game the way you want to play it.”

Jones expected to play inside linebacker, but Grantham decided to put him on the outside, in a better position to make plays.

“I never thought I’d be in this position to rush the passer,” Jones said. “I always thought I was an inside linebacker. But when I got here, coach Grantham saw it in me. He worked with me.”

Jones didn’t record a sack until Georgia’s fourth game. Then he exploded, and is within a half-sack of David Pollack’s school record. But he has retained his all-field skills, leading the SEC with 19.5 tackles for loss. The Bulldogs move Jones around the field to give him a chance to make plays, so he basically plays both inside and outside linebacker.

“We’ll look forward to lining up against him and playing well, and you certainly have to know where he’s at and what his abilities are,” Miles said. “We’ll try to run our offense and take care of wherever he’s at.”

Jones will have two more years of eligibility remaining. He may not use both of them, although he has repeatedly ruled out leaving Georgia after this season. And while other Georgia defensive players have adopted rather brash attitudes, Jones has remained pretty even-keeled.

“I’m not fast. I’m not strong,” Jones said. “I’m really not. People think I am, but I’m really not. I’m gonna give you the same look every time. I’m gonna give you 100 percent every play. It’s just the determination you’ve gotta have, the passion you’ve gotta have.”