TJ Jones was a broken kid.
In the minutes before Notre Dame opened the 2011 season, he grieved the loss of his father and hero, Andre Jones, standing with his mother -- and 80,000 Irish fans -- as the stadium stopped to commemorate the incredibly difficult losses suffered by the Fighting Irish football family.
You can hardly blame Jones if he was partially absent during that bizarre season opener against South Florida. A game where Jones racked up a season high six catches, but also let a football hit the 5-foot-11 receiver in the helmet -- a ball that careened off his head and into the arms of a South Florida defender, another backbreaking turnover that ended up short-circuiting Notre Dame’s promising 2011 season before it got started.
Jones played most of last season in a fog, after his father Andre passed away suddenly in June, cut down by a brain aneurism at the far too young age of 42. He left behind six kids, with TJ the oldest, now feeling more like a provider than a college kid.
“Every second, when I’m not thinking about schoolwork or football, I’m thinking about him,” Jones said last September. “It has put a toll on me.
“I’ve got six, seven people counting on me. So every day I got to push myself that much harder to make sure that it’s not enough to make it for myself, but also for my family.”
Jones’ sophomore season was a respectable one, though not all that memorable. He caught 38 balls as a complementary part to Michael Floyd in the receiving corps, notching 366 receiving yards a year after Jones went over 300 as a freshman. But a season removed from the most difficult year of his life, Jones took to the field this season with added purpose. Some gained from a trying experience he still thinks about every day. And some because his teammates needed him.
“I really tried to make this leap in my play from last year,” Jones said in October. “As much as I wanted to better myself on the field, it was more than I could deal with, and it became more about just getting through the games.
“This year, I’m still not used to my dad not being here, but I’ve had a chance to cope with it. So when I’m on the field, I can be on the field. And when I’m off the field, I can go think about what I need to think about.”
In the aftermath of last season, Notre Dame was in desperate need of a wide receiver to step up now that Michael Floyd was gone to the NFL. Fans looked high and low for candidates. Would it be Davaris Daniels, the talented sophomore who spent last season redshirting behind Floyd? Would it be a trio of true freshman? Would John Goodman or Robby Toma make the leap during their final season in South Bend?
Turns out it was Jones making his move to the forefront, taking his game to the next level as he became an upperclassman. And his head coach most certainly noticed.
“Without question, I think there’s one guy singularly who has brought his game to a new level,” Brian Kelly said of Jones back in October, a week after his sliding touchdown catch against Stanford in overtime helped the Irish win their most dramatic game of the season. “He’s developing that mental and physical toughness, and he would tell you that. But more importantly, he’s really focused on his craft, and the skill of route-running. All of those little things that go into being a better football player.”
Jones has taken the promise that he immediately showed in his first practices at Notre Dame and refined them into a player that was among the most consistent on the Irish roster. Taking on a key role as an outside receiver, Jones was now the player that Kelly and the offensive staff craved. A guy that did things right. A guy that won one-on-one battles. A guy that made the tough catch. A player that set an example for a receiving corps still filled with newbies.
And probably more important than any of those things, a son who would have continued to make his father incredibly proud.
“He would have been jumping up and down, yelling,” Jones said of his father, reminiscing after his clutch touchdown catch against Stanford. “He probably would have been on the sideline waiting to hug me when everyone rushed the field. I definitely thought about that.”