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October 11, 2012

Jones rounds into form

To understand how far TJ Jones has come as a blocker on the outside of Notre Dame’s offense, consider the receiver now draws praise in meetings from offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

It’s hard to imagine a more authentic stamp of approval.

And that’s exactly what Jones has been getting this season while seeing the most consistent time of his career, justifying that longer run with better production beyond his stats. Not only does Jones lead Notre Dame in first down receptions, he’s also helped spring explosive runs by George Atkinson III and Cierre Wood.

“We can block up front, but when the ball breaks the perimeter, (the receivers) have got to be there,” said offensive tackle Zack Martin. “TJ and Robby (Toma) and DaVaris (Daniels), all those guys, they’re throwing their bodies around.

“If somebody has a good block, our coach is the first one to say, ‘Look at these guys working. We’ve got to do our job because we’ve got guys like this working on the perimeter.’”

That Jones would need to block better to play more was understood after last season when the Irish lost their best receiver in Michael Floyd, having to replace the first round pick’s hands, used to catch passes and drive back cornerbacks.

Jones said the receivers didn’t defer to Floyd last year, but there was no questioning the hierarchy where most plays ran through the future pro, even on the ground. When catches were scarce, Jones didn’t complain.

Jones caught just 38 passes last season and didn’t score a touchdown after Oct. 1. In losses to Stanford and Florida State, Jones totaled two catches for nine yards.

While he’s on pace for just one more catch this year than last, the Irish are throwing less and running more. Completions are down by more than six per game. Passing attempts are down by about nine per game. That’s fewer opportunities for Jones receptions, but it doesn’t affect his effort.

“Personally, I think I am playing my best football,” Jones said. “I have a lot more drive this year. Bigger leadership role that I have to play. My team knows that they need me to be this kind of leader. Every play, every down, I’m trying to push.”

Brian Kelly sees traction after the junior led the Irish with four catches for 45 yards against Miami. He also threw a block near the goal line that nearly gave Cierre Wood a long touchdown run in the third quarter, the tailback pushed out at the two-yard line.

“I think the difference between TJ this year and last year is his focus on being a complete wide receiver in all phases of the game,” Kelly said. “Vertically, he ran a great come‑back route Saturday where he was precise in and out of his break and he's been a much-improved blocker. In all phases there is a commitment on his end to be the complete player.”

That commitment appears to be paying off. Even Notre Dame’s offensive linemen have noticed.

“You definitely need to have a little grit about yourself when you block or it’s going to be a long day,” Jones said. “I play with grit on the field. I’m silent about it. I don’t voice myself a lot. I have an attitude in my head that if I want something to do, I’m going to do it.”

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