Junior T.J. Jones was, as Brian Kelly ticked off names such as Daniels, and Goodman, and Smith, and Toma when noting the progress of the team's wide receivers in Year 1 A.M.F. (After Michael Floyd).
It's conceivable the omission was also a message from Kelly to Jones, the most seasoned starter and most productive returning receiver on the roster:
"Nothing is guaranteed," especially for a receiver group in flux.
Progress DelayedFrom future freshman starter to forgotten junior in a span of 720 days. That's the macro overview of Jones' South Bend journey to date.
In late-May 2010, Jones was the lead candidate to start at the X receiver position entering Kelly's, and his, first August training camp – an early enrollee freshman that impressed the staff with his work ethic, fundamentals, and playmaking skills.
Since, he's produced the following:
Freshman (2010): 23 receptions, 306 yards, 3 TD, 13.3 per catch, 25.5 yards per game…
Sophomore (2011): 38 receptions, 366 yards, 3 TD, 9.6 per catch, 28.2 yards per game.
The initial set of numbers qualified as "promising" because fans and media tend to overvalue freshman contributors. The second set, his sophomore stats, while not bad likely qualify as "disappointing" because fans and media tend to write off college players who don't dominate by the time they become juniors.
Per usual, the truth lies somewhere between, with one caveat: In one of the rare examples of athletic temperance, Irish fans likely understand that Jones' heart and mind couldn't have been focused on the gridiron last season. His father Andre, a former national champion and standout linebacker for the program (1987-91) died unexpectedly last summer of a brain aneurysm.
The pair were previously inseparable, and the impact of the loss of his father was not unexpectedly, a life-changing event.
"Every second I'm not thinking about football or school work, I'm thinking about him," said Jones last season. "It's (taken) a toll on me, but I've learned that when I'm on the football field or in the classroom, I'm there. Afterward, I can think to myself and be to myself."
"He taught me to be the person that you'd want people to think of you as," Jones continued of his father. "It's changed a lot for me because I don't have that person to go to when I have questions about football or life at Notre Dame because he knew all that. So I don't really have anyone to talk to now. I've become the man of the house, so my problems don't really matter to me anymore. It's more helping my family out and all that.
RenewalJones was rarely referenced by Kelly during spring media sessions last month, partly because he wasn't stepping to the fore, but also likely because he missed unreported time with injury during the session.
But while fans hope for a John Goodman swan song or a breakout debut from DaVaris Daniels, its more than likely that the team's leading returning receiver will make the biggest early season impact, just as he has during his first two seasons. Of Jones' six touchdowns, five have occurred before mid-season (four in September) and none were scored in November or beyond, the likely by-product of an undersized receiver's continuous presence in a rotation that has never featured more than four game day regulars in Kelly's first two seasons.
Durability will be key to Jones' third-year ascent, so too will be a return to the fearless north-south post-catch approach he showed as a first year player, one that rarely resurfaced last fall.
"A guy who's kind of gotten lost is T.J. Jones," said new receivers coach Mike Denbrock, who coached the team's tight ends for the last two years. "He's a guy I think can make plays in our offense. He has some savvy about him; has some football intelligence about him and competitiveness that'll put him in the mix to make a lot of plays for us as well."
The offense as a whole needs more big plays from its skill position contributors. Jones can add to that tally, but his true calling card, securing the catch and a no-nonsense, north-south approach is more important, not to mention likely, than downfield fireworks. 12 straight games of the former would qualify as Jones doing his job to make the offense work better, and more consistent, than last season's version.
The Jones FilesHas started 19 of 25 games played, missing only a matchup with Utah in November, 2010 over the last two years…Jones has compiled 61 receptions for 672 yards with six touchdowns.
- Michigan 2011: Facing 3rd and Goal at the Wolverines 9-yard line, Jones caught a check-down crossing route from Tommy Rees and, behind a Robby Toma block, found the near sideline for what should have been a decisive touchdown and 24-7 lead late in the third quarter. Notre Dame famously blew the contest thereafter and Jones clutch play (as well as Toma's pinball block) went for naught. Jones also caught three balls for 73 yards and a 53-yard touchdown in the 2010 contest vs. the Wolverines in South Bend.
- Navy 2010: Subbing for injured slot receiver Theo Riddick, Jones moved from his X receiver spot inside and produced one of his best games in an Irish uniform, catching five passes for 59 yards and a 16-yard post-route touchdown. The Irish offense was without favorite targets Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Riddick, and lost starter Armando Allen (for the season) during the defeat.
- Michigan State 2011: Caught the game-clinching touchdown, a beautifully thrown 26-yard go-route to the right corner of the end zone. The leaping grab gave the Irish a 28-10 lead midway through the third quarter in a 31-13 victory over the eventual 11-win Spartans.
- Purdue 2011: Four of his five receptions resulted in first downs including a third-quarter, 9-yard touchdown grab in a blowout win over the host Boilers.
- South Florida 2011: In a scene replayed ad nauseum by every major sports outlet, Jones endured a verbal evisceration on the sidelines from Kelly, the result of a Tommy Rees pass that bounced off Jones' helmet in the red zone and was subsequently intercepted. Jones failed to look at Rees on a short crossing route, the pass careened in the air off of his helmet and was intercepted at the 5-yard line, killing Notre Dame's scoring threat in a 23-20 defeat. Jones caught six passes for 58 yards in the contest including a leaping 23-yard grab in which he took a vicious shot (but remained in the game) on the Irish sidelines.
- November 2010: After sitting out the Utah contest due to neck and hamstring injuries, Jones never regained his early-season spark, coming off the bench in the next two contests (no receptions) while corralling just one ball in a starting effort against Miami in the Sun Bowl.
- November 2011: Finished the season with just two receptions for a total of nine yards in back-to-back losses vs. Stanford and Florida State. His body language throughout might have been worse than the paltry statistics produced.
Wide Receivers coach Mike Denbrock on Jones: "I think its important we don't pigeon-hole T.J. as just an X or just a W or whatever. Very smart, intelligent and skilled with physical tools. We have to use that and move him around. He can be a big play guy for us."
Tell-Tale Stats/Final ThoughtsIt's notable that five of Jones' six career touchdowns were scored with a game's outcome still in doubt…Jones was targeted for just six passes over the last two games last fall…He was targeted often on the team's tunnel screens last season, a tact that brought minimal results and should be utilized more with Theo Riddick than the less explosive Jones…
Jones was a far better blocker (and more willing) as a true freshman than he was last season. Former offensive coordinator Charley Molnar noted that Jones was a quality blocker (for his size) as a true freshman, but that slipped noticeably last fall as did his overall impact, especially down the stretch when he seemed indifferent or disenchanted in the offense. A return to the bulldog approach that defined his early freshman season will be crucial to an offense that relies on yards after the catch and perimeter rushing…
To be fair, the best-case scenario for Jones has yet to be defined. He has plenty of football left and plenty to prove and improve upon. But realistically, Jones can compliment Eifert as a possession receiver, compliment Daniels and Riddick as a threat after the catch, and compliment the receivers as a whole as one of the best players – a deserving starter that shows up each week rather than when everyone is fresh in September.
Jones has six career touchdowns; the All-American Eifert has seven in the same number of contests (Eifert has actually started two more). It's too early to write off the junior after what was likely just a (somewhat excused) sophomore slump.