TJ Jones

Ten players, ten reasons: TJ Jones

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The third in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta and Danny Spond.

TJ Jones was a broken kid.

In the minutes before Notre Dame opened the 2011 season, he grieved the loss of his father and hero, Andre Jones, standing with his mother — and 80,000 Irish fans — as the stadium stopped to commemorate the incredibly difficult losses suffered by the Fighting Irish football family.

You can hardly blame Jones if he was partially absent during that bizarre season opener against South Florida. A game where Jones racked up a season high six catches, but also let a football hit the 5-foot-11 receiver in the helmet — a ball that careened off his head and into the arms of a South Florida defender, another backbreaking turnover that ended up short-circuiting Notre Dame’s promising 2011 season before it got started.

Jones played most of last season in a fog, after his father Andre passed away suddenly in June, cut down by a brain aneurism at the far too young age of 42. He left behind six kids, with TJ the oldest, now feeling more like a provider than a college kid.

“Every second, when I’m not thinking about schoolwork or football, I’m thinking about him,” Jones said last September. “It has put a toll on me.

“I’ve got six, seven people counting on me. So every day I got to push myself that much harder to make sure that it’s not enough to make it for myself, but also for my family.”

Jones’ sophomore season was a respectable one, though not all that memorable. He caught 38 balls as a complementary part to Michael Floyd in the receiving corps, notching 366 receiving yards a year after Jones went over 300 as a freshman. But a season removed from the most difficult year of his life, Jones took to the field this season with added purpose. Some gained from a trying experience he still thinks about every day. And some because his teammates needed him.

“I really tried to make this leap in my play from last year,” Jones said in October. “As much as I wanted to better myself on the field, it was more than I could deal with, and it became more about just getting through the games.

“This year, I’m still not used to my dad not being here, but I’ve had a chance to cope with it. So when I’m on the field, I can be on the field. And when I’m off the field, I can go think about what I need to think about.”

In the aftermath of last season, Notre Dame was in desperate need of a wide receiver to step up now that Michael Floyd was gone to the NFL. Fans looked high and low for candidates.  Would it be Davaris Daniels, the talented sophomore who spent last season redshirting behind Floyd? Would it be a trio of true freshman? Would John Goodman or Robby Toma make the leap during their final season in South Bend?

Turns out it was Jones making his move to the forefront, taking his game to the next level as he became an upperclassman. And his head coach most certainly noticed.

“Without question, I think there’s one guy singularly who has brought his game to a new level,” Brian Kelly said of Jones back in October, a week after his sliding touchdown catch against Stanford in overtime helped the Irish win their most dramatic game of the season. “He’s developing that mental and physical toughness, and he would tell you that. But more importantly, he’s really focused on his craft, and the skill of route-running. All of those little things that go into being a better football player.”

Jones has taken the promise that he immediately showed in his first practices at Notre Dame and refined them into a player that was among the most consistent on the Irish roster. Taking on a key role as an outside receiver, Jones was now the player that Kelly and the offensive staff craved. A guy that did things right. A guy that won one-on-one battles. A guy that made the tough catch. A player that set an example for a receiving corps still filled with newbies.

And probably more important than any of those things, a son who would have continued to make his father incredibly proud.

“He would have been jumping up and down, yelling,” Jones said of his father, reminiscing after his clutch touchdown catch against Stanford. “He probably would have been on the sideline waiting to hug me when everyone rushed the field. I definitely thought about that.”

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”