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TJ Jones shines as ‘big-play guy’ for Rees and Irish

Andrew Gastelum | Sunday, October 6, 2013

On Sundays at what was formerly known as Cowboys Stadium, a star aligns right at midfield for all to see. On this particular Saturday night, he lined up outside the numbers. 

His labels include receiver, punt returner, captain and originally, Tai-ler, but senior TJ Jones is now adding to his stellar resume. The 5-foot-11.5, 195-pound wideout paced the Irish with eight receptions and 135 receiving yards to go with a touchdown in a 37-34 win over No. 22 Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. 

“Well, TJ is our big-play guy,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I mean, he’s somebody that we have to rely on.”

But being the big-play guy with a gold helmet brings a certain amount of attention, something Jones has had to adjust to as much as he had to adjust to having a ‘C’ on his jersey.

Jones only had one catch in the first quarter but followed up with a big second quarter with four. 

“He’s such a smart football player,” senior quarterback Tommy Rees said. “I think that’s one of the things that all good receivers have is they understand coverage.  They understand leverage and how to run routes.  TJ’s best asset is how well he understands defenders are playing him, and then he runs routes based off of that.  You know, a guy like that I can trust and count on being on the same page.  He obviously catches everything and does a great job.”

Before Jones, NFL first-round talents Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert were Rees’ go-to targets. The shoes may have been bigger than when he first arrived as a freshman starter at Notre Dame, but the soft-spoken yet determined Jones has since embraced the role. 

“It means a lot to me,” Jones said. “And I know it means a lot to the team to just be the guy they look to make those tough plays and just be the guy that can own up to wearing that ‘C’ on my chest.”

But Jones has added another letter to his legacy at Notre Dame: X, as in X-factor. On the five drives Jones had a reception, Notre Dame scored four times (the one failure was a missed field goal). But on the eight drives Jones did not record a reception, the Irish only scored once, albeit on a two-play drive after a Sun Devils turnover at the Arizona State 21-yard line. 

One of those scoring drives ended on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Jones, after a textbook corner route right before the end of the first half. Rees had his eye on his fellow senior the entire time, and Jones made the most of the opportunity in man coverage. 

“Tommy and TJ have come through this program together,” Kelly said.  “Whereas sometimes we misfire with some of the other younger receivers, and I think you probably saw that at times, him and TJ Jones are right on the same page.  And when he’s in trouble, he’s looking for TJ Jones. … When he needs to throw, he’s looking for TJ Jones.”

Jones has also made a significant impact on special teams, where Kelly said the captain has a passion and determination to succeed. After the departure of Floyd, the Irish punt return went dormant for a season, before Jones revived it. Jones already has more return yards this year (71) than Notre Dame had all of last year (46) and had a crafty 27-yard return to push the Irish across midfield on Saturday. 

Meanwhile, Jones’ special-teams fortune followed him to the last play of the game, when he recovered a 50-50 onside kick despite never being in the original five-man pile. Asked how he recovered the ball to seal the victory, Jones chuckled as he tried to find an answer.

 “I’m not really sure,” he said. “I just ran over there and I saw them fighting for it. It just scooted out and I jumped on it the first chance I got.”

This season alone, Jones leads the Irish with 33 receptions and 481 receiving yards and is tied for the team lead with four touchdown grabs. With only six games and a likely bowl appearance left in his Irish career, Jones can’t help but think about what’s next. 

“It’s a weird feeling playing in an NFL stadium,” Jones said. “Everyone has dreams to play in these stadiums one day.”

If he continues his recent tear, this star may just run into that logo in Dallas – this time on Sunday.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu