It’s tough to get too worked up about a “watch list.” The closest thing to the Little League participation trophy in college football, it’s an annual roll call of college football’s best names, a small pat on the back during the doldrums of summer that serve as talking points until preseason all-conference teams are announced and teams actually — you know, put the pads on and start practicing.
Yet as the Biletnikoff Award released its annual short list, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Irish wide receiver TJ Jones. After a sophomore season that saw Jones catch 38 balls for only 366 yards and three touchdowns, not even the most optimistic Irish fan saw Jones as someone worthy of a Top 50 wide receiver mention in college football.
Yet Jones represents the best returning wide receiver on the Irish roster, even if he’s been largely forgotten in the Irish’s search for a go-to receiver after the departure of Michael Floyd. Ready to move past a sophomore season that saw Jones deal with the sudden loss of his father, the Biletnikoff’s optimism that Jones, entering his third season in the starting lineup, will be ready for a breakthrough, would be a huge relief for new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and Mike Denbrock, now working with the outside wide receivers in 2012.
Putting the 2011 season in the rearview mirror is probably the best thing for Jones and the Irish offense. After an emotional pregame ceremony honored Andre Jones and other members lost in the Irish football family, Jones opened the season on the wrong side of Brian Kelly’s purple-faced tirade, drawing the ire of the head coach when he let a Tommy Rees pass bounce off his helmet deep in the red zone during the Irish’s crushing 23-20 loss to South Florida. It’s hard to imagine that Jones’ afternoon against the Bulls, where he caught six passes for 58 yards, would be his most prolific output of the season, especially with defenses needing to pay attention to both Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert. Yet Jones was largely a non-factor after a promising rookie campaign, making plenty of Irish fans wonder if Jones had reached his ceiling.
Still, there’s every reason to think that one wide receiver will emerge as an explosive option in Brian Kelly’s offense, if only because that seems to happen every season for Kelly. In his first two years at Notre Dame, that was Floyd. At Cincinnati, it was Mardy Gilyard, while at Central Michigan a mostly anonymous cast of characters still only failed to produce an 800+ yard season during Kelly’s first season with the Chippewas.
As the Irish offense looks for answers on both sides of the catch and throw, with names like Everett Golson, Davaris Daniels, Gunner Kiel, and Davonte Neal being bandied about, perhaps the answer has been under our nose all along.
(The below video was produced by Robby Toma and Lo Wood for their Film & Television class.)