Senior TJ Jones physically never looked like the archetype of durability. His ultra-slender 170-pound something frame his freshman year had conked out by the final month that season when he was sidelined with various ailments. Even today at a more hale 195 pounds, he physically does not appear on the surface as one who could handle the wear and tear of the brutality that comes with a major college football season.
TJ Joones has evolved from a complementary piece to a bona fide star during his career.
Yet half the battle in anything is first to just show up, and that’s what Jones has repeatedly done while setting a Notre Dame record with receptions in 37 straight games. Meanwhile, he’s evolved from a complementary, role player his first two seasons, to consistently clutch performer as a junior, to prime-time player as a senior. He’s played through physical, mental and emotional pain all the while.
“I think it comes with age, understanding your role,” said Jones of his reliability that has grown with each passing season. “It becomes bigger as you mature and as you spend more years in a program. There’s a difference between being hurt and being injured, and I think I really took that to heart coming into my junior year and realizing that it’s a physical sport, you’re going to be hurt, you’re not going to be 100 percent really at any point in the season besides the beginning of summer camp.”
Seeing all the injuries this season, especially on defense, Jones is humbled to not be among the wounded.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “It is a freak year that we’re having with so many possible season-ending injuries … it’s hard to deal with, but at the same time you’ve got to know there is a risk you run playing football.”
Fearless at going after catches, Jones added punt return duties to his dossier this fall and has averaged 8.6 yards on 11 returns, setting up a score last week with a 13-yard return to the Pitt 40. He also has been incorporated into the fly sweep, where he is in motion toward quarterback Tommy Rees before taking the pitch. At Pitt, he gained 35 yards on one of those plays and rushed for his first career touchdown, from a yard out, on another. He accounted for a career high 204 all-purpose yards in the loss at Pitt.
“It’s prideful in a way,” he said of his many roles. “I feel my first three years, having greats like Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, I was overshadowed, but I knew that was my role. I knew to play my role to the best of my ability, and that [it] comes senior year. I had to take every opportunity up to that point and make the most of it.”
Jones credits a variance in his speed work and conditioning the past off-season to his durability this year.
“I do feel different. Last year I felt like maybe I lost a step as the season went on due to wear and tear on the body,” Jones said. “Now at this point in the season I still feel really as strong as I did at the beginning of the season and feel just as fast when I need to be.”
Last year, Jones was perhaps the most underrated member of the team while tying John Mackey Award winner Eifert in most receptions (50) and becoming more than just a complementary figure during a magical 12-0 regular season that saw the Irish finish No. 1. His consistency even occurred in the BCS Championship debacle to Alabama when he caught seven passes for 93 yards.
This year — when Jones might share the Team MVP Award with Tommy Rees — a collective letdown has followed as the 7-3 Irish limp into their home finale against BYU on Nov. 23. But do not tell Jones there is nothing left to play for in 2013.
“It’s Notre Dame,” said Jones, who joined Zack Martin and Bennett Jackson as this year’s team captains. “If that’s not enough for you to play for, then you’re at the wrong school. Even though we’re not going to go BCS, it’s still playing for your brothers, it’s playing for the family and the bond that you build together with your teammates, and playing for the University of Notre Dame.”
It also will mark the first time since the 2011 South Florida opener his sophomore year that Jones’ family will be present in Notre Dame Stadium. The previous time his mother and Jones’ five siblings were at Notre Dame as part of an annual opening-game honoring of deceased members that year of the Notre Dame football program. Jones’ father, Andre, a co-starter on the 1988 national champs as an outside linebacker, died that summer at 42 from a brain aneurysm.
“It’s going to be emotional, and it will be bittersweet. … It’s something I always envisioned, having my dad and my mom out there [for Senior Day],” Jones said.
“It means a lot being able to kind of follow in my dad’s footsteps that carry on the Notre Dame legacy … being able to kind of uphold the man that I know my dad would want me to be.”
Jones said it still feels like yesterday he made his debut at Notre Dame during a 23-12 victory over Purdue in which he grabbed a touchdown pass. He became the first Irish freshman to catch a touchdown in his first two games. The message he is imparting to his fellow receivers, especially the four freshmen, is to have an urgency with each practice, each play, each healthy moment.
“They’ve got to understand how quick it goes by,” Jones said. “They look up and soon Chris Brown and those guys are going to be juniors. And I know they don’t feel like it, so you’ve got to cherish every opportunity you have on and off the field, and you have to understand that you can’t control what happens to you. Any day could be your last day. It could be a season-ending injury, God forbid, but you’ve got to go out there and play like it’s you last game because you never know.”