Tommy Rees never took his eyes off senior receiver TJ Jones on his final half of the first play. Jones lined up by himself on the short side of the field with 10 seconds left in the second quarter. Rees watched him lose a defender on a sharp out cut and then delivered a pass at the edge of the end zone to give the Irish a 14-13 lead.
Irish senior receiver TJ Jones breaks a tackle in Dallas Saturday night during one of his eight catches against Arizona State.
Jones’ touchdown catch was one of eight on the night — he also had a 35-yard reception earlier in the two-minute drill drive — and he finished with 135 receiving yards. Saturday’s game was the second time this season Jones has topped 100 yards receiving, a night where he separated himself as the top target for Notre Dame’s offense.
“TJ is our big play guy. He’s somebody that we have to rely on,” head coach Brian Kelly said the next day. “When [Rees] needs to throw, he's looking for TJ Jones.”
In each of the three most recent seasons Notre Dame has had a clear first choice in the passing game. In 2011, Michael Floyd caught 100 balls for the Irish offense before going in the first round of the NFL Draft. Tight end Tyler Eifert assumed that role last season, especially when Rees entered games in relief of starting quarterback Everett Golson, and also landed in the NFL as a first-round pick the following year.
Jones may not have the size or speed to join his two predecessors on draft day. Despite Brian Kelly referring to his senior captain as a first-rounder in August, NFL.com’s most recent projection has him coming off the between the third and fifth rounds. He is, however, the most logical go-to guy Rees has had during his tenure at Notre Dame.
Rees and Jones arrived in South Bend at the same time, one month after Kelly did during the spring of 2010. They roomed together for more than two years on campus and have both started games in all four of their seasons for the Irish.
“We’ve been here from day one together,” Jones said. “Not only on the field, but off the field there’s a lot of chemistry between us. It shows in our performance on the field.”
Kelly said their familiarity with one another keeps quarterback and receiver on the same page more than any other tandem on his roster. On the play before Jones’ 35-yard catch in the second quarter, Rees targeted junior receiver DaVaris Daniels. Daniels cut his route off 10 yards downfield, but the ball sailed a good five to 10 yards over his head. Rees expected him to keep running.
Daniels shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms to the sky. The same sequence unfolded on a third down play late in the fourth quarter that could have sealed a Notre Dame win. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound receiver was a candidate to become that “go-to guy” for the Irish offense this season, but gaps in communication have kept him and his quarterback from developing a consistent level of trust. Rarely if ever have Rees and Jones turned to each other with the same shrugged-shoulders look this season.
They speak a language that still sounds foreign to most of the other receivers on the team at times. They had at least three full semesters together to learn how to communicate before any other current receiver joined the team.
“I can say things [and other] guys look at me like I'm crazy, and he understands it,” Rees said. “He's like a coach out there for us outside and obviously being a captain and being a leader of the team, he's done a great job of understanding the intricacies of playing.”
Jones’ career total is now up to 144 receptions. His first catch in Dallas Saturday put him in front of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, who was at the game, in the program record book. He passed Jim Seymour with his next catch and will almost certainly jump Tom Gatewood and Golden Tate in the coming weeks as well.
If Jones averages six patches per game during the second half of the season, he’ll end his career as the second-most prolific pass-catcher to play at Notre Dame behind only Floyd. That comes as no shock to Rees, who would be happy to help him get there.
“I'm so happy for him and all the success,” Rees said. “It's not a surprise; he's a hard working and very talented player.”