NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Since his performance last season there’s been a buzz surrounding TJ Jones and his ability as a wide receiver. The senior tied former tight end Tyler Eifert for the team lead in receptions with 50 and was one of the few players who brought his A game to the national championship in Miami. The anticipation of Jones having another big year is palpable and certainly something just about everyone is looking forward to seeing.
Yesterday at Media Day however, the buzz intensified for the senior as it was announced by Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly that Jones would be a team captain and return punts for the 2013 season. While the news of being a captain speaks for itself, the same can now be said of any sign of improvement directed toward the much maligned Notre Dame punt return team.
For the 6-foot, 195-pounder, being hailed as one of the team’s main leaders was an honor.
“It means a lot to me,” Jones said about wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey this season. “I have a lot of family ties with Notre Dame, so being named a captain in my last year here, being able to work my way up that totem pole, and kind of do my family and father justice by going out with a bang means a lot.”
“It’s a great feeling,” he continued. “You work towards it and you think about it, but you never know how close or how far away you are from it. So when your name is called, it’s definitely a great feeling.”
Unfortunately that feeling isn’t something that can be shared with his father, Andre Jones, who passed away in 2011 and played for the Irish from 1987-1991. Still, the Roswell, Ga. product has already imagined how his dad would react when he told him about his new role.
“I think he’d be real proud,” Jones explained about his father. “I’ve envisioned what that conversation would be like.”
You can be sure the conversation would eventually turn to his other new job as the Irish punt returner, which is a position the former Gainesville High School star put on the backburner for various reasons up until this season.
“I think last year was really my first year to focus on football,” Jones stated about why he didn’t return punts in the past. “Freshman year I had an injury, sophomore year my father passed away, so last year I just wanted to focus on being the best receiver before trying to take on another role like punt returner.”
Being a senior means taking on roles that others don’t want and with an abysmal performance the past two seasons, it was time for Jones to utilize his talents in other ways besides running routes and catching passes.
“I just felt that we needed a playmaker back there,” Jones said about why he wanted to return punts. “We needed someone to make plays - that was our weakest special team. Not only do I feel I have the assets to make plays back there, but it also helps, with that special team in particular, when you make plays it’s a game changer and momentum changer. It’s something that can spark the team.”
Even with a fast and shifty player like him carrying the ball, the 10 other guys still have to do their job. Although according to Jones, this hasn’t been an issue in camp.
“I think it can be a weapon,” Jones explained about the punt return team. “We’re working a lot harder than we did in previous years and have a lot more experienced players blocking on it now. I think we’re going to be more aggressive.”
With being a captain and punt returner now on his plate, that doesn’t mean he can’t work on improving the reason why he’s in South Bend in the first place.
“There’s always something to get better at as a receiver,” Jones stated. “Whether it’s getting bigger, faster, or stronger, the intricacies of your personal play, or being more explosive, there’s always something you can get better at. You’re never your best. Each year you have to find what your weaknesses are and work to improve on them.”
The weaknesses in his game are few and the coaches have shown their trust in him by moving him all over the place depending on field position. This is perfect for Jones, as he’ll play where he’s asked as long as it’s best for the team.
“I’m good with wherever they put me,” Jones said. “I’m playing slot to the field and to the boundary and also the outside receiver to the field and the boundary. So wherever they need me to play I’m comfortable and willing to play every position, including running back. Whatever the offense needs me for, I’m willing to go.”
For a team that struggled scoring touchdowns in the red zone last season the need will be for him and his teammates to make things happen in that area, which has been a point of emphasis this August.
“We worked a lot more red zone this camp with the defense,” Jones explained. “A lot of our one-on-ones with the DBs are in the red zone. We just work more on being more aggressive down there knowing that it’s life or death and the defense is going to hold you. You’re going to have to man up and either block down or make that contested catch.”
One reason for the success the offense has been having in the red zone the past few weeks is the accuracy of quarterback Tommy Rees, who Jones believes is as sharp as ever in that regard.
“He (Rees) has always been an accurate thrower,” Jones stated. “Now it is on point and I’d say he’s gotten better through the years. You can definitely expect big things from him.”
If you can expect big things from Rees, then hold on tight with the talent the Irish have on the offensive side of the ball. Some would say most of the talent is unproven, but Jones sees it in a different light.
“We don’t have a lot of experience as the numbers may say,” Jones said about the skilled positions. “We have a lot of guys who have a lot of talent who are waiting for their chance to shine. It’s competitive every day in practice and pretty much all of our receivers can play and we wouldn’t miss a beat. That’s, I think, where the balance comes in, whether it’s a receiver or tight end or running back.”
A trio of rookies are also making noise amongst the receivers and if you believe anything Jones says, it’s more than Corey Robinson catching his eye.
“I think all three of the freshmen receivers are weapons,” Jones explained. “With Corey’s (Robinson) height, he’s a jump ball threat and with Will Fuller’s speed, he’s a downfield threat and also shifty. James (Onwualu) is kind of like me, he runs great routes, but is also a big, strong, physical player. So all three of them have found ways to put themselves in our offense and get on the field.”