It’s an awfully lofty compliment when Notre Dame fans compare you favorably to a Michigan player, someone who has to be reflexively hated for the "M" on his maize and blue jersey.
But that’s what Alize Jones saw come across his Twitter feed when he committed to Notre Dame in January 2015. The athletic 6-foof-4, 240 pound Las Vegas native immediately drew comparisons to Devin Funchess, the former Michigan tight-end-turned-wide-receiver who starred for the Wolverines from 2012-2014.
“They were all like, guarantee he’s going to be a Devin Funchess,” Jones smiled.
Jones’ size and athletic ability — as well as a thinned tight end depth chart — opened the door for him to play as a true freshman last fall. That’s a rarity, too: The last Irish tight end to record a reception in his first year on campus was Ben Koyack, who had one catch in 2011. Jones caught 13 passes for 190 yards, highlighted by a 45-yard fourth quarter reception against Temple that set up DeShone Kizer’s game-winning toss to Will Fuller.
While those numbers represent a solid season for a freshman receiver or tight end — even Fuller only had seven catches his first year — Jones wasn’t close to satisfied with it.
“Just watching film after practices and games, just seeing all the mistakes that I made, it’s like, man, I didn’t take enough time and I don’t think I took it serious last year,” Jones said during spring practice. “I think that my head was just — personally, I don’t think I was ready for it.”
For Jones, playing as a freshman was an eye-opening experience as he learned what it takes to succeed at the college level. Talent and recruiting hype don’t guarantee a player can arrive on a college campus and play well right away. Jones came to understand the necessity of knowing the entire offense, not just his position, and spent spring practice watching film and meeting with teammates and coaches to improve in that area.
“His confidence is growing,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said, “but it’s real confidence in his knowledge of what we’re doing.”
Armed with that offensive knowledge, and with the freshman jitters gone, Jones seems to be in line for an expanded role, gauging from what we saw during spring practice and comments from his head coach.
“He’s got multi-dimensional opportunities,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s a big-time athlete that can do some things for us.”
Some of those things Kelly alluded to include playing receiver on the boundary, which is Notre Dame’s “W” position. With Corey Robinson’s football future still undecided — and even if he does return to play in 2016 — there’s an opening for Jones to be that Funchess-type tight end who makes an impact at receiver.
Jones said he’s spent plenty of time watching how bigger NFL receivers use their size and athleticism to beat opposing cornerbacks.
“God’s blessed them with size, blessed me with size. You just gotta use it.,” Jones said. “And it’s tough when a defender has a 6-foot-5 guy, 230 pounds, and you have to defend. What are you gonna do? The ball’s up in the air, you gotta go get it. It’s tough to defend that.”
But Jones doesn’t just watch bigger, Calvin Johnson-esque receivers. He’s studied guys like Fuller — the smaller, quicker variety of receivers.
“I want to be able to play like a smaller guy but in a big man’s body,” Jones said. “Even though the tight end position has been predicated on bigger guys, I want to still be fast. I want to be that fast guy, that athletic guy where I can play receiver if need be. So I really have been harping on that this offseason.”
Part of the learning curve for Jones, too, was going from playing in front of a few thousand fans at Bishop Gorman High School — Ronnie Stanley’s alma mater, too — to the sold-out crowds at Notre Dame Stadium and hostile road environments like Clemson’s Death Valley. But he’s been there, done that now, and wants games to feel more like practice this fall.
It’s all adding up to Jones aligning himself to being a key part of Notre Dame’s offensive equation the fall — no matter what position he’s playing.
“I know what it’s like to play Clemson and Ohio State and teams like that, playing against elite guys,” Jones said. “Now going into my sophomore year, I’ve already done it. It’s just getting comfortable with everything, which I am. So I really feel like all the pieces are coming together.”