As a true freshman in 2010, Notre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones burst onto the scene with touchdowns in each of his first two games (including one that shouldn’t have counted against Michigan). The son of the late Andre Jones, a member of the Fighting Irish’s last national championship team in 1988, TJ Jones finished his debut season with 23 catches and three touchdowns.
While his numbers improved a bit in 2011, his sophomore season (during which Andre Jones passed away) was a bit of a disappointment after his initial splash a year earlier. With Michael Floyd’s departure heading into 2012, the Irish were searching for a playmaker to step up on the outside to complement All-American tight end Tyler Eifert.
Jones not only exceeded the expectations of most people outside of the program with 649 yards in his junior season, but he also came up with his biggest plays at the most critical moments.
Notre Dame won three games last season in either the final minute or in overtime (Purdue, Stanford, Pittsburgh). Jones had touchdown receptions in all three, including a sliding grab for the game-winning touchdown against the Cardinal on a soggy field at Notre Dame Stadium.
Despite the game being lopsided, Jones’ seven-catch, 90-yard performance against Alabama in the BCS Championship Game was one of the few bright spots for the Irish on that January night in south Florida. The lights were bright on many occasions in 2012 for Notre Dame, and each time, Jones shone.
As we approach the 2013 season, Jones is now the No. 1 target for whoever wins the suddenly open quarterback position after Everett Golson’s dismissal last month. It’s likely to be classmate Tommy Rees, who threw that memorable pass to Jones in overtime against Stanford.
In the two games played predominantly by Rees last season (Michigan and BYU), Jones had just two catches in each, tied for his lowest output of the season. Is that more attributable to facing two quality defenses, or because Rees saw Eifert as his go-to receiver? It’s likely a bit of both, but with Eifert now a Cincinnati Bengal, we should know the answer by mid-September.
Junior DaVaris Daniels also played well against the Crimson Tide, and could push Jones for the team lead in receptions. Beyond Daniels and Jones, the receiving corps is predominantly a mystery heading into the fall, with only 45 percent of the team’s receptions from last year returning, half of which belong to Jones.
Who will lead Notre Dame in receptions in 2013?
While losing Golson for the 2013 season likely prevents the Irish from opening up an offense that appeared stodgy for much of 2012, Jones could be one of the beneficiaries of a unit that will again stress clock control and limiting mistakes.
Plays like Chris Brown’s game-changing 50-yard reception at Oklahoma will be few and far between this season, but those deep routes aren’t Jones’ specialty. He’s developed into a more physical receiver, excelling in sideline and crossing routes. That’s where Rees prefers to do most of his damage due to limited mobility and arm strength.
Because of his physical limitations, timing and post-throw adjustments from wideouts are more important with Rees than with Golson. He had it with Eifert. He had it with Theo Riddick. Now, he’ll have to have it with Jones.
The prolific offensive numbers just aren’t going to be there this fall. Notre Dame will go as far as its defense takes it. Will that be Pasadena on Jan. 6 for a second straight BCS Championship Game? Probably not, but the 2013 Fighting Irish still have plenty of attainable goals.
To reach those goals, Notre Dame will have to again survive close, low-scoring games. That likely wouldn’t have happened in 2012 without the play of Jones in those big moments, and certainly won’t happen without similar performances in 2013.