Hit the ground running (again?): Tai-ler JonesHe enrolled early; first hinted at a starting wide receiver spot before the mid-point of the spring practice session; and caught the first two touchdown passes of the Irish season.
It came easy, early, for T.J. Jones as a true freshman. And now, more than most returning starters, the sophomore X-receiver competitor needs a convincing encore to cement his spot as one of the team's 3-4 key receivers for 2011.
Jones shared the starting job last season, earning seven starts with a pair of three-game starting nods intermixed before a late-season hamstring injury kept him from the majority of November. Back in the saddle in the Sun Bowl, Jones finished the season with his seventh start and a third-down, 19-yard grab that set up Notre Dame's final score.
16 of his 23 receptions occurred over a select four games (Purdue, Michigan, Navy and Tulsa) and 14 were in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium though it's notable that Jones' most productive outing – a five-catch, 53-yard, TD effort at Navy – was xxx in his only slot start of the season.
Jones returns as the top candidate for the X-receiver role; he's also among two veteran backup slot competitors with a third, freshman George Atkinson, a possible addition.
Should Theo Riddick's backfield appearances become more than a dalliance in '11, Jones could earn the slot role outright yet possess the ability to jump back to the X after a full year of knowledge and practice in the offense.
Another early riser: Danny Spond never found a home from scrimmage last fall – nominal listing as Manti Te'o's backup inside notwithstanding.
But the athletic freshman that head coach Brian Kelly offered in August was, "really, really dynamic" with the ability to "shock (opponents) with his hands" (his ability to use his hands to defeat blocks, not as a pass-catcher) earned a spot on the Irish coverage units, making eight appearances before an ankle injury and illness kept him from late-season matchups with Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Army, and USC.
At 6'2" 225 pounds, Spond's future – at least in 2011 – appears to be at DOG/Drop linebacker where he'll compete with senior Steve Filer, freshmen Ben Councell and *Ishaq Williams, and possibly junior Dan Fox (who could stay inside) for a spot in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's rotation.
The Irish received steady but unspectacular play at Drop LB last season – the position requires an athlete that can both redirect opposing pass-catchers in short zones, with the occasional jam near line of scrimmage, while also holding up vs. the outside run. An upgrade would lend an immediate boost to a defense that improved immensely over 12 games last fall.
(*Williams could also compete behind senior Darius Fleming for a backup CAT linebacker role.)
Sophomore Standouts?Tommy Rees and Prince Shembo started just four games between them, but the freshman pair embodies the new era of Notre Dame football. (Shembo earned the team's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award; Rees the landslide winner for the inaugural "Next Man In" trophy.)
Rees appeared in nine games – six of consequence including one defined by a costly interception in a cameo vs. Michigan; the next in which he engineered a near comeback effort while breaking or tying a handful of program freshman records along the way in a frustrating loss to Tulsa. He and the Irish were famously perfect thereafter, with four season-ending starts and victories, vanquishing two of Notre Dame's most bitter rivals to conclude the season.
Shembo was one of three freshmen (Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson were the others) to appear in all 13 games last fall, though none of the trio earned a start. He enters 2011 as one of the team's 10 best defensive players (I could argue as high as No. 8) but also as a playmaker without a defined position. Ill-suited for the DROP role opposite CAT starter Darius Fleming (whom Shembo backed up last season), Shembo, 6'2" 245, will reportedly first receive off-season evaluation inside at the WILL linebacker spot (manned by Carlo Calabrese, then Brian Smith last fall).
Inside, outside, WILL or CAT, starter or rotation regular, Prince Shembo will make an impact in opposing backfields next fall.
Rees, on the other hand, will have to earn that opportunity again, this time over a competitive six-month span pitted against former starter Dayne Crist, Rees' oft-referenced classmate Andrew Hendrix, and possibly early enrollee Everett Golson.
If pressed, I'd predict Tommy Rees as the winner of the four-headed QB derby for next September's season-opener vs. South Florida…and I have enough confidence to wager about $1 on that way-too-early forecast.