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The Four-Year Plan

Mike Monaco | Thursday, November 21, 2013

TJ Jones arrived at Notre Dame as its highest-rated offensive recruit in the class of 2010.

He arrived as a top-10 freshman receiver in the nation.

TJ Jones will leave Notre Dame as one of its most productive receivers ever.

He will leave with his name etched in the record books, beside that of Floyd, Samardzjia, Tate and Brown.

It’s not an unfamiliar path. A high-profile recruit attends Notre Dame and leaves after a storied career.

But Jones’ route from elite high-school prospect to accomplished Irish receiver was anything but direct, anything but a go route.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs,” the senior said. “There’s ups and downs in everyone’s life. And I was always told it’s how you handle those ups and downs that makes you to the man that you end up being.”

What he is now and what he was as a freshman are worlds apart, separated by four years of growth.

“Just a young 17-year-old kid ready to have fun, ready to party, enjoy the social life of college,” Jones recalled of his former self. “I’m not sure if I was ready to take on the responsibility of being a leader at Notre Dame. But definitely someone who was eager to kind of get soaked up in the campus.”

The early enrollee from Roswell, Ga., made an impact right away, youthfulness aside. After an extra semester on campus, he played in 12 of 13 games, made seven starts and totaled 531 snaps on offense, the second-most of Irish receivers. Jones hauled in 23 receptions for 306 yards and three touchdowns.

But following that 2010 campaign, during summer practices in South Bend, Jones was called into the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. He was informed his father, Andre, had suffered a brain aneurysm. The next day, Andre passed away at the age of 42. Andre was a four-year linebacker/defensive end at Notre Dame and a starter on the 1988 national-championship team.

“It was a tragic loss. It hurt,” TJ said. “I’m still dealing with it every day. It forced me to mature quicker. It forced me to grow up and be the man of the house, to be more of a you-person as opposed to more of a me-person. What can I do that’s going to help my family out, my loved ones, as opposed to what’s going to help myself out first?”

TJ returned as a sophomore and started 12 games. He made modest increases in his overall production, posting 38 catches for 366 yards and another three scores. But things still hadn’t turned a corner for TJ during that season. He was still, admittedly, not a mature college student.

“It clicked right before my junior year started, once I had time to kind of learn how to cope with my father’s passing,” Jones said. “And then figuring out kind of how to focus just on football. That was the first time in my three years of being here that I had been able to just focus on football.”

With a laser-like focus, Jones zeroed in. He said his daily routine stayed the same. He would wake up, work out, go to class and go to practice. 

“I think it’s just how I went about practice,” he said. “Every day, whether I was feeling good or not, the mental approach I took to practice.” 

As he clamped down during practice, his production continued to improve. In 2012, Jones tied former Irish tight end Tyler Eifert for the team lead in receptions with 50 and in receiving touchdowns with four. He finished second on the squad with 649 receiving yards.

After a career night in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama, during which Jones recorded seven grabs for 90 yards in the 42-14 blowout defeat, he carried his strong junior season into a breakout senior campaign. The 5-foot-11.5, 195-pounder has already notched 54 receptions for 891 yards and eight touchdowns, all career highs.

He’s a markedly different player now, beginning with his presence and prowess on the practice field. After Notre Dame’s season-opening 28-6 victory over Temple, Irish coach Brian Kelly said he saw Jones’ football focus manifest itself in practice.

“He hasn’t missed one practice,” Kelly said at the time. “I think the want and desire to be the best is there every single day. His want to be on special teams and return punts, you can see that there’s a passion to wanting to be the very, very best. 

“As to why it wasn’t there, young guys are still figuring it out, but he clearly wants to be the best and I think leave a legacy here at Notre Dame.”

Part of Jones “still figuring it out” was consistently practicing, now a staple of the senior’s persona.

“TJ is always hurt. He’s always battling something, every day. He’s always banged-up,” sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. “But you never see him miss a practice. Never. He could be banged-up for that practice, get up and be limping around and still be out there playing, still running a nice route. I’m like, ‘Come on, man. Chill out. We need you this Saturday.'”

But Jones in practice is the same player as Jones in a game.

“Even in practice, he’s attacking the ball,” Russell said. “He wants the ball in his hands. … No matter the situation, he wants the ball in his hands.”

Russell added Jones will do anything to help the team win. Such a team-wide focus, too, had to be cultivated over time as part of the shift from Jones’ “me-person” to “you-person.”

“Here is a young man that came in with a lot of national accolades and hype, and, you know, had to kind of go through maybe a rough spot or two,” Kelly said Tuesday. “And he fought through that and developed within the program an understanding of team versus individual.

“And now, it’s kind of come full circle where, as you know, I didn’t talk much about TJ the last couple years, but all I do is talk about TJ, because now he understands team first.”

With his new mentality, Jones was named one of three captains – along with graduate student left tackle Zack Martin and senior cornerback Bennett Jackson – heading into this season. Jones said he learned about leadership while playing alongside Eifert and former Irish receiver Michael Floyd.

“I learned how to be a leader watching them practice, how they played, how they carried themselves on and off the field,” Jones said. “They’re the perfect examples of leaders. And once they left I felt that that was me. It was my time. I was the next one in line and I kind of had to follow in their footsteps.”

Jones has done just that during the 2013 season, his first at Notre Dame without either Floyd or Eifert. In nine of 10 games thus far, Jones has tallied at least four receptions. He has five 100-yard receiving games, the first five of his career. He set a career high with 149 receiving yards against Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, and he added 41 yards on the ground, as well.

“He’s a playmaker in so many ways,” Russell said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. He has that mindset. ‘Every time I touch the ball I want to score.’ … When somebody really wants to be that playmaker, it’s going to happen. It’s going to show because you’re going to work to want to be that. … His work ethic exceeds what it ever has been from what I’ve seen so far.”

Talk to his teammates – like graduate student inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese and junior tight end Troy Niklas – and they throw around the word “dominant” to describe Jones, both as a player and a leader.

And, really, the two go hand-in-hand.

“I think that TJ’s growth and development has kind of mirrored itself both on and off the field,” Kelly said.

On the field, Jones has left his mark. He’s 15 receptions away from moving into second place all-time in Notre Dame history. Four more receiving touchdowns and he’ll rank fourth all-time. Another 72 receiving yards and he’ll claim sixth all-time. A touchdown catch against BYU on Saturday will give Jones a scoring grab in eight consecutive games, which would tie the school record shared by Jeff Samardzjia and Golden Tate.

Jones the player and Jones the leader are far from their respective freshman versions. 

Still, he’s here now, ready to emerge from the northern end zone of Notre Dame Stadium for one final home game, from the same end zone Jones so nostalgically recounted running out of as a freshman for his first career game.

Four years ago.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu