SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly believes receiver TJ Jones can be a whole lot more than an outstanding route runner.
Kelly raised eyebrows with bold statements about Jones during training camp, predicting he would not only emerge as the go-to guy for the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish (1-0), but predicting the 5-11, 194-pound senior will follow in the footsteps of Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd and be a first-round NFL draft pick.
Jones made his coach's predictions look good in the opener against Temple, showing a burst of speed he hasn't shown previously. It started on Notre Dame's second possession, when Jones caught a screen pass in the backfield at his own 10-yard line, took advantage of a two key blocks, broke a tackle at the 30, avoided a lunging defender 5 yards later, then raced up the sideline before finally being knocked out of bounds at the Temple 36-yard line.
The 51-yard gain set up the second touchdown for Notre Dame and was the start of the best game of Jones' career as he broke the 100-yard receiving mark for the first time, finishing with 138 yards on six catches. It's the kind of performance Kelly hopes to see again this week against No. 17 Michigan (1-0).
"He caught the ball, and then he was dynamic after the catch. That's what we're looking for from him," Kelly said. "He is going to be in the mix every single week because he's one of the best receivers in the country."
The game is the final scheduled trip for the Irish to Ann Arbor before the series ends next season after Notre Dame decided last year to cancel the last three games.
Jones, a team captain from Roswell, Ga., attributes his strong start to simply feeling more comfortable this season. Football hasn't always been his focus, especially his sophomore season, after his father Andre Jones, a member of Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, died unexpectedly at age 42 of brain aneurysm.
"This past year is the first time I've been able to focus on football, my responsibilities, becoming a man. It's weird to see how much I've grown. I came in as a 17-year-old kid and now I'm a 21-year-old man about to graduate and leading as a senior captain," he said.
His goal is to make it to the NFL so he can help his mother, Michele, and his five siblings, the youngest who is 11 years old.
"It's not all about TJ anymore. It's about my family," he said.
Jones said he worked hard during the offseason on improving his speed, saying he's heard that there was a concern about him playing in the NFL because he didn't have a "second gear." So he focused on working on speed through weightlifting, plyometrics and other conditioning drills. He hasn't timed himself, but said he feels faster and believes he can get even faster.
"I think a lot of it has to do with confidence: Believing in yourself, believing you can get faster, believing that you've gotten faster. Because if you don't believe in yourself, you're going to hold yourself back," he said.
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison raved about Jones, saying he's a "very, very good" receiver who is explosive with good hands.
"He's definitely a threat," said Mattison, a former Notre Dame assistant.
Jones also took on the duties of punt returner this season, asking the coaching staff for the opportunity after seeing the Irish struggle there last season. He had three returns for 23 yards, placing him 33rd in the nation at 7.7 yards a return. It might not sound like much, but considering the Irish had a total of 46 yards in punt returns in all of last season, it isn't a bad start.
Jones feels he has a lot of room for improvement, saying he needs to be more patient.
"If I would have slowed down, even if they would have clubbed my ankles, I might have been able to keep my balance a little better," he said.Comment on this story
He and his teammates head into Michigan remembering a devastating 35-31 loss there two years ago, when Notre Dame let a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead slip away, then regained the lead when Tommy Rees threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 30 seconds left. But the Wolverines rallied to win when Denard Robinson threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with 2 seconds left.
"That's probably the worst loss we've had as a team," Jones said. "Going into the fourth quarter with that kind of lead and letting it slip away, both offensively and defensively, kind of shows you the game isn't over until that last second ticks off."
Kelly said he believes the reason Jones looks improved is his passion to get better.
"He clearly wants to be the best and, I think, leave a legacy here at Notre Dame," he said.