TJ Jones proved to be an exception from the start.
Last season he became the first Notre Dame freshman to catch touchdown passes in his first two games, beating out a handful of veteran receivers for time in the process. Yet when the Irish got on their late season surge, finishing with four straight victories, Jones was nowhere to be found.
His next catch in November will be the first of his college career. Jones battled injuries toward the end of last season but never missed time. A year later the sophomore wants to join the crowd on an end-of-season run.
“I feel a lot more physically prepared this year,” Jones said. “I’ve gotten a little bigger, I’ve learned to run with my weight. I’ve learned how to maneuver at the college game.”
At 26 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns, Jones has already surpassed his reception total from last season. He’s 26 yards from his yardage mark and even in scores. He’s also been more consistent, posting at least three grabs in all but two games. Last year he got blanked three times and posted just one catch five times.
From Brian Kelly’s perspective Notre Dame hasn’t used Jones enough, although that’s a byproduct of targets to Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert. Even being roommates with Tommy Rees hasn’t been able to pry the quarterback’s attention from his two potential All-American targets.
“Probably could make the case that (Jones) is underutilized,” Kelly said. “I like the way he plays. Plays fast, kid who loves to play the game.”
If Jones doesn’t have the numbers of Floyd or Eifert, he does have his teammates’ respect.
Even at 5-foot-11, 187 pounds, the former four-star recruit and one-time Stanford commitment has developed into a capable blocker. He ranks among Notre Dame’s best route runners. And he’s able to undercut a defense with crossing routes, which might come into play Saturday night at Wake Forest, which plays plenty of three-deep zone.
“He’s a guy that can go out and you can count on on a day-to-day basis,” Rees said. “He knows the offense as well as any of the receivers. He understands running routes and getting into voids and understanding how defenses are trying to take receivers away.
“I think the biggest thing with him is he’s got a great football IQ. He catches the ball very well with his hands. It’s just a matter of working him into the offense. He knows if he runs his route every time there’s a possibility he’s getting the ball.”
Those chances figure to increase next season after Floyd leaves for the NFL, leaving Jones and Theo Riddick as Notre Dame’s only proven wide outs. Of the 129 receptions made by wide receivers this season, 122 of them have come from Floyd, Riddick and Jones. That’s a 94.6 percent rate.
Another sign of maturity might be Jones shrugging off Kelly’s commentary about his utilization.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Jones said. “My freshman year I probably would have said that. Now it’s playing my role for the team and if it’s two or three catches per game or five, six catches a game, I’m just going to play my role and set up blocks and make those catches.”
One thing’s for sure, the opportunities for those catches should be rising soon. Jones appears ready for those chances, starting with a November surge.