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December 14, 2013

It's Jones in a landslide

He’s come a long way since the first game of the 2011 season when Brian Kelly “enthusiastically” expressed his displeasure with his sophomore receiver.

That game, a loss to South Florida, and that play, a pass from Tommy Rees for which Jones was unprepared as it bounced off his upper body and into the hands of a Bulls defender, was a lifetime ago for the 5-foot-11 , 195-pounder from Roswell, Ga.

Nearly three full seasons later, the son of the late Andre Jones, a linebacker for the Irish from 1987-90, is the most valuable player of the 2013 Notre Dame football team.

“It means a lot. It’s one more thing to cherish as I leave Notre Dame,” said Jones, decked out in his owned-not-rented burgundy tux. “It wouldn’t be possible without the help of my teammates. I’d like to think it’s a team reward and I’m an individual recipient.”

Jones was on the fringe of greatness for three seasons, catching a co-team-high 50 passes for 649 yards and four touchdowns as a junior in 2012. But in his final year with the Irish, he became a noticeably more explosive athlete and a no-doubt-about-it go-to guy for quarterback Tommy Rees.

“There is one player and it was a consensus, and you guys got the opportunity to weigh in on it,” said Kelly to the team Friday night from the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on the south side of the Notre Dame campus.

“Quite frankly, it wasn’t close, and when we looked at it and you guys weighed in on who the most valuable player was on this football team in 2013, it was pretty clear. Your voice is being heard. In 2013 the most valuable player of Notre Dame football is TJ Jones.”

Jones caught 65 passes for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns during the ’13 regular season, raising his career totals to 176 receptions (third all-time at Notre Dame), 2,363 yards (sixth) and 19 touchdowns (sixth), with a chance to add to those totals in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28.

“To be honest, no,” said Jones when asked if he envisioned MVP status earlier in his college career. “This year, a lot of things I’ve been able to do really exceeded my expectations from where I began my career here, and I can’t be going out on a higher note.”

Jones wasn’t thinking MVP when Kelly was turning purple in the 2011 season-opener?

“No, I was thinking, ‘Uh-oh. What’d I do?’” Jones laughed.

Kelly indicated during the 2013 season that early in Jones’ career, he wasn’t always able to differentiate between injury and the normal wear-and-tear of football.

“Being able to play whether you’re hurt or you’re injured,” said Jones of the difference in his game. “If you’re injured, you take your time off. If you’re hurt, you push through it.

“You know that football is a physical game and you’re going to have your nicks and your bruises. But being that leader when they named me captain, that comes with being tougher physically and mentally.”

It was another emotional night for Jones, who’s lived through the tragedy of his father’s sudden, unexpected death in between his freshman and sophomore seasons at Notre Dame. Jones’ mother, Michele, provided a video salute during the 93rd Notre Dame Football Awards Ceremony known as The Echoes.

“It was cool to see what my mom had to say behind the scenes, and I know that she still thinks about my dad every day, like I do,” Jones said. “It’s definitely a moment that even though I wasn’t there when she said it, I was sharing it with her because it was similar thoughts to what I had.”

Once the Pinstripe Bowl is complete, Jones will spend a couple of days in New York, head back home near Atlanta to pick up some clothes, and then point to a destination still to be determined where he will begin training in anticipation of the NFL combine, senior workouts at Notre Dame, and then the NFL draft in May. Jones said he expects to sign with an agent within 24 hours of the completion of the bowl game.

Upon leaving Notre Dame, he’ll carry with him many fond memories, including a lifelong friendship with the quarterback he hooked up with so frequently during his four years with the Irish - Tommy Rees.

“Tommy Rees is a guy that I’ll keep in contact with for the rest of my life,” Jones said. “He’s a guy I lived with for two-and-a-half, three years. On the field and off the field, our chemistry couldn’t be any stronger. He’s someone I can count on, someone whose family I’ve been around, someone who I consider family. You can’t take that away once I leave here.

“That (on-field chemistry) goes back to how strong our relationship was off the field. We thought alike. We were never on different pages. We always talked to each other about what we saw, whether it be defenses or life problems.”

Jones said the Irish would not be one of those teams that is unprepared or unwilling to participate in a minor bowl when they take on Rutgers on Dec. 28.

“We feel great,” Jones said. “It’s the last time I’ll wear a Notre Dame uniform and the last time I’ll play with this group of guys, so we’re definitely looking forward to finishing the season together.

“(A letdown) is not going to happen because we treat every game as important as the next. Even if in some people’s eyes it might not be the ideal bowl for us, we’re very fortunate to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. I know the organization and the people who put that bowl together have (set up) an ideal week for us to have the most fun on and off the field. We’re excited to play one last game together.”

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