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Jones, Rees lead early enrollees into college

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, April 22, 2010

Freshman early enrollee Tai-ler Jones has spent as much time taking snaps with the first team offense as he has with the second, yet Irish coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff don’t mind reminding Jones that he is, in many ways, still a high school senior.

“He’s still got the tassel on the car window from graduation. He’s just a young kid,” Kelly said after Saturday’s practice. “He’s got a chance to be a player for us and can contribute this year, but his work volume really tapers off.”

Jones and the four other early enrollees — quarterback Tommy Rees and defensive backs Chris Badger, Spencer Boyd and Lo Wood — have all needed to adapt to a change in lifestyle, both on and off the field. The fact that they can handle that change sets them a apart, wide receivers coach Tony Alford said.

“I think it takes a special young guy to come in at semester. You’ve got to be a little more mature for your years to come in,” Alford said earlier in the spring. “These guys right now, their buddies are getting ready for prom. They’re trying to pay somebody to be their date, and these guys are stuck here at college in the middle of spring football practice.”

They’re also on a new campus taking college classes at one of America’s toughest academic universities.

“Coming from high school, it is different in college life,” Rees said with a chuckle. “You have to find out where your classes are, how to get there … You just have to make sure your time is divided up equally, find the balance between football and school.”

That balance can be tough to find when you also need to absorb a playbook Kelly has spent 20 years crafting, but, in a way, the early enrollees have an advantage over the rest of the team in this regard, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said.

“I think being a blank slate is a good thing from the standpoint that the techniques, play calls and all the things that we do are so different from what the previous system was,” Molnar said. “They don’t have to have two systems in their heads.”

But they still do need to adjust to a BCS-level practice. Throughout his rise up the depth chart, the coaching staff routinely criticized Jones for a lack of endurance — something Jones does not dispute.

“The biggest surprise was the intensity at practice, and how they treat practices like the games,” Jones said. “It really comes down to pushing myself more during practice, pushing through that wall. In high school I never really got fatigued.”

In that regard, enrolling early may have been the only solution, Molnar said.

“There is no question, [enrolling early] has helped him a lot,” he said. “Going through winter workouts, getting with [strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo], getting with the quarterbacks and the other receivers. There is no way he would be ready to play if he came in August.”

Come August, Molnar said Rees could also contribute, knowing Kelly’s penchant for playing many quarterbacks for various reasons.

“He really is made for a spread offense,” Molnar said. “He’s got a quick release, he makes very quick decisions, has quick feet in the pocket. From that standpoint, I think he’s got a real chance to be a player here at Notre Dame.”

The chance to contribute is why the early enrollees left behind graduation ceremonies and prom dates, Jones said.

“When I hit campus, my plan was to make the best of every chance I get, and help the team in any way to win, whether it is on special teams, or second or third on the depth chart,” he said. “Whatever I could do.”

At the least, Jones, Rees and the three defensive backs impressed their coaches with their decision, Alford said.

“It takes a mature guy to do that,” he said. “They’re all doing a good job, and I’m proud of them.”