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.”

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.