For the third straight year, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have chosen captains with a bit of a twist from the previous season.
Kelly had game captains in his first season with the Irish in 2010, a solo captain (Harrison Smith) in 2011, and quad captains - two on each side of the football - in 2012.
This season, it will be a trio of captains with two on offense and one on defense.
Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Zack Martin becomes the 18th two-time captain in Notre Dame history and the first since linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr., held the title in 2007-08.
Senior wide receiver TJ Jones is the first son of a former Notre Dame football player to represent the Irish as a captain since offensive lineman Ryan Leahy followed in the footsteps of his father James (offensive guard in the mid-‘60s), who was the son of legendary Irish head coach Frank Leahy. (Frank Leahy played for Knute Rockne in the late ‘20s.)
Jackson, undoubtedly the most outspoken player on the field for the Irish defense, is the first cornerback to serve as captain of the Irish since 2003 when Vontez Duff was bestowed the distinction.
“Zack did an incredible job last year of leading us through an incredible year,” Kelly said. “He was someone we could count on week-in and week-out. He did that again this year during the off-season. He was a great resource for all of our players and coaches.”
Kelly said Martin and fellow fifth-year offensive lineman Chris Watt sometimes waited an hour-and-a-half after their summer workouts to lead the five freshman offensive linemen through their paces.
“Anything we could do to help when Coach (Harry) Hiestand couldn’t be there, we’re going to try to do,” Martin said.
For Jackson, it’s a bit of a full-circle accomplishment. Less than two years ago, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks said that Jackson was not as engaged as he could have been during his transition from receiver to cornerback because he knew he wasn’t in the immediate mix for playing time at his new position.
But once Gary Gray and Robert Blanton graduated, Jackson moved into the starting role, and his leadership skills blossomed.
“Every young man that comes into this program and many programs has a desire to play early, and they think that they’re All-Americans coming out of high school,” Cooks said. “It takes them a while to grasp that things are different at this level.
“Bennett went through his transition just like everyone else. He was transitioning from offense to defense, so he had some fundamentals he had to work on and he took it to heart. He saw what hard work and listening and being detailed could do for you, and he’s taken it and run with it.
“Bennett exudes everything that we ask our players to be. He leads by example off the field and on the field. He’s been a great example of what it takes to start out as a young guy and continue to develop, continue to strive. He’s put himself in position now to lead this team. He’s very deserving of that captainship.”
Jackson called it one of the great accomplishments in his life.
“It’s a great honor,” Jackson said. “I was thrilled when coach told me. It’s always been a lifetime goal for me, something you put on your achievement list. I’m proud of all the support from the coaches and my teammates. I’m glad the coaches feel that way about me. I feel I’ve done a great job of showing each individual teammate that I’m here for them and that I’m that vocal leader for them.”
There’s a great sense of gratification around the Irish program that the son of the late Irish outside linebacker, Andre Jones (1987-90), has ascended to one of the greatest honors a Notre Dame player can attain.
“I’m really proud of TJ’s growth and development,” said Kelly, who just two seasons ago was purple-faced following a bit of miscommunication between Tommy Rees and Jones that led to a turnover in Notre Dame’s season-opening loss to South Florida in 2011.
When asked how his father would have responded to the exciting news, Jones thought about it and then broke into a smile.
“He would have been ecstatic,” Jones said. “He would have been jumping around, yelling on the phone…He might have come up here just a little early for the Temple game just to hang out. But he definitely would have been proud.
“It means a lot. I have a lot of family ties at Notre Dame. Being able to represent my teammates, my family, and the university as a whole on this level is an honor and I can’t thank my coaches enough.
“It’s something you work towards as a senior working your way through the program. You never know how close you are to it or how far you are, so when (coach) finally says your name, it’s kind of a like, ‘Okay, I did it.’ It’s more responsibility now, but at the same time, it’s a good feeling.”
Kelly was asked why Rees did not land a captain’s spot.
“There are so many things I look at when it comes to captains, and it doesn’t just have to do with being the quarterback and having a 14-4 record,” Kelly said. “That’s a valid criteria, but I look at so many different things. Tommy’s got a lot on his plate being the quarterback at Notre Dame.”