There’s never been any question of Alizé Jones’ football talent, not in his mind, nor in the minds of those who rated him a five-star talent coming out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.
But even the most self-assured football players – if they have an eyes-wide-open approach to the hurdles of the game – have to take a step back to recognize what they know and don’t know.
Inexperience or a lack of exposure to the pertinent information to succeed is eye-opening.
There may not be a player on the 2016 Notre Dame roster with a greater upside than Jones, the 6-foot-4 ½, 240-pound sophomore tight end. Rated a five-star prospect, Jones eliminated any doubters of his lofty ranking with flashes of brilliance during his freshman season with the Irish.
He caught a modest 13 passes for 190 yards and has yet to score his first collegiate touchdown. But with virtually each of his receptions, any football-trained eye could see a unique combination of size, speed and athleticism that translates to huge upcoming numbers, likely beginning this fall in Jones’ second season.
“I’m really excited,” said Jones in anticipation of his first Blue-Gold Game Saturday. “This is my first spring ball and I’m ready to go out there and showcase what I can do.”
What he could do as early as his freshman season was unclear when he reported to Notre Dame last June. With 76 receptions for 1,501 yards and 23 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Bishop Gorman, Jones’ transition to the college game and the recognition of how much he didn’t know was humbling.
“I came in last summer and lot was thrown at me,” Jones said. “Coach (Brian) Kelly was always saying I was sinking. I was swimming.
“I really didn’t know how to come in and get into the playbook. It took me a long time to get acclimated to college ball.”
Jones caught his first three passes in an Irish uniform for 19 yards in the third game against Georgia Tech. He added another three grabs for 56 yards in an all-you-can-eat victory over UMass in Week Four.
Three weeks later, it was Jones’ 35-yard reception from DeShone Kizer that set up a go-ahead score by Corey Robinson that propelled the Irish to a 10-point victory over rival USC.
But it was a week later that Jones’ mindset truly changed, likely for the rest of his career.
“I would probably say Temple,” said Jones, reflecting on his clutch 45-yard catch-and-run that set up the game-winning score in Notre Dame’s 24-20 victory over the Owls. “When I got that, I got some confidence.”
Jones would catch just three more passes over the final five games with Will Fuller and Chris Brown getting most of the touches through the air. But the taste of big-time success with the game on the line triggered the immense confidence in Jones.
“It’s very hard knowing what’s going on because you’re nervous as it is,” said Jones of his early days at Notre Dame. “As a freshman playing at this University, it’s insane just knowing the tight end history. It’s very overwhelming.”
Jones isn’t overwhelmed anymore. In fact, this spring he and senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. have struck the pose of the heir apparent tandem to lead the Irish in receptions this fall in place of Fuller-Brown.
“If I can get all those things right and just play with the confidence like I had in high school, I know my ceiling is very high,” Jones said.
This spring, the Irish coaching staff has raised the roof on Jones. When Corey Robinson (concussion) and Equanimeous St. Brown (shoulder) went down with injuries, the list of candidates for the W position became even skimpier.
Why not Jones, whose size and athleticism lends itself to a hybrid tight end-wide receiver combination? Kelly had no trouble answering his own question.
“He’s a big target, he’s physical and athletic, and he’s a guy that we’ve got to try to find a role for,” Kelly said. “He can’t be in a rotation as a third tight end on the field. That’s pretty clear.”
In other words, just don’t take Jones off the field.
“(Wide receivers) Coach (Mike) Denbrock said, ‘You’re going to come in the meeting room with us and go over W,’” Jones recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow!’
“My eyes were everywhere because now you’ve got to know the Y (tight end) and the W. I could be at Y and Durham (Smythe), (Nic) Weishar or whoever could come in and I go to W. Now it’s transition over to wide receiver. It’s fun.”
It’s also a potential nightmare for opposing defenses. As a tight end, Jones’ speed makes it a difficult matchup for a linebacker or safety. As a wide receiver, Jones puts a real burden on cornerbacks dwarfed by his stature.
“I welcome it,” said Jones of the dual role. “I really like it. It just goes to show that the coaches are aware of what I can do and that they put a lot of trust in me.
“To say we want to put him outside, we want to put him in-line, we want to move him all around…that’s a lot for defenses to plan for if I do my job.
“So I have to make the coaches look good. I have to make sure that when they hold me to something, I’ve got to stand up to it. To go out to W is really cool. Hopefully I can showcase that (in the Blue-Gold Game).”
Jones, introspective in all things that impact his life, reflects on the misfortune that befell Smythe during the ’15 season – knee and shoulder injuries – and how it opened up an avenue for an early contribution in his career.
“You never want anyone on your team to get hurt,” Jones said. “But with that happening, it allowed me to get playing time.
“Now I know what it’s like to play in front of 80,000 people. I know what it’s like to play at Clemson and against Ohio State, to play against elite guys.
“Going into my sophomore year, I’ve already been there. I really feel like the pieces are coming together.”
And when the pieces come together for a talent like Jones, the upside skyrockets.
“I know it’s very high,” said Jones when asked about his ceiling of talent. “I know what I’m capable of doing. I’ve had moments where I look at the film and I’m surprised by a great play I’ve made in practice.
“It’s a matter of being consistent. Once I get 100 percent with it, which I will be by this season, I’ll be out there just playing football.”
And carving a path to stardom.