Jones evolves into consistent performer
Andrew Owens | Thursday, November 1, 2012
For two years, junior receiver T.J. Jones stood in the shadows as Michael Floyd rewrote the Irish record book. Amidst heartbreak and sporadic play, Jones never emerged as a viable threat behind the NFL-bound talent.
This season, without Floyd and with less pass-catching production from senior tight end Tyler Eifert, Jones has found his niche in the Irish offense while developing as the unit’s leader.
“I just think I worked a lot harder this offseason and was a lot more focused day-in and day-out,” Jones said. “I try to practice hard every day like it’s my last and every game I go out to try and prove something with a chip on my shoulder.”
Enter the new T.J. Jones.
In the hostile environment of then-No. 8 Oklahoma, Jones piloted the Irish receiving corps with five critical catches for 55 yards. During No. 3 Notre Dame’s 8-0 start, Jones has emerged as a trusted option for the Irish quarterbacks – sophomore Everett Golson in particular.
“I was Everett’s host when he came for his visits in high school, so I’ve known Everett since as early as he’s been here,” Jones said. “[We] have a good relationship and we talk often. We might hang out every now and then.
“I might pick on him a bit like a little brother, but most of the time we’re just kicking it as friends.”
Irish coach Brian Kelly said trotting out an experienced offense has eased the burden on Golson.
“I think the big key for [Golson] is he knows going in that he doesn’t have to do it himself,” Kelly said. “He can rely on others and especially guys like Eifert and T.J. Jones and a veteran offensive line and the backs…”
Jones said being one of the most experienced Irish receivers has been an adjustment, but that he has always taken on a leadership role at Notre Dame.
“It does feel a little different now being a junior,” he said. “Technically I’m an upperclassman now, so it does feel different in that aspect, but since I’ve been here I’ve been helping people with the playbook because I picked it up fairly easy because I enrolled early [in the 2010 spring semester].
“I’m used to helping people out and helping them get around.”
Irish coach Brian Kelly said Jones has improved his play as an all-around receiving threat in the spread offense.
“I think he’s really focused on his craft in terms of route running. He knows he gets more playing time if he’s an aggressive blocker, which gives him more opportunity to be on the field and catch the football,” he said. “I think he understands that his playing time is predicated on him being a complete player.
“I think the difference between T.J. this year and last year is his focus on being a complete wide receiver in all phases of the game.”
Jones said the magnified leadership role has not led to an increase in pressure.
“To me, I’m just trying to produce as much as I can regardless of if it was freshman year or now,” he said. “The pressure’s there to produce, but I wouldn’t say with age comes pressure.”
In this, the third year under Kelly’s direction, several players have blossomed into their roles.
“They are getting better. They are playing their best football later in their career,” Kelly said of the squad’s veterans. “Mike Golic [Jr.], Manti Te’o, T.J. Jones and then we have got some young guys that we have to take some of the lumps along the way.
“But I think that’s how I look at it more than anything else in terms of the development of the individuals and the whole of the team; I’m pleased with that.”
But don’t expect Jones to rest on his laurels or become complacent with any individual or team achievement two-thirds of the way through the season.
“Right now, I’d say [I need to get] bigger and faster and stronger,” he said. “I learned the playbook from almost every position, if not every position. I can always improve my work ethic to push myself farther and push new limits, but definitely being able to withstand long seasons and become a more physical receiver, I need to do that.”
“[The coaches] push me everyday. They expect my best every day … They’re going to push me and not let me get away with little things, and they’re going to inspect every detail out of my play.”
Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]