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SOUTH BEND – It's the circle of life for a wide receiver. As a freshman in high school your task is to shut and survive, as in shut your mouth, learn as much as you can from the older players and try not to get killed by an incoming linebacker or safety.
The cycle repeats itself at the college level, and even if you are a high draft pick in the National Football League, again, you start from scratch when entering a new level.
Notre Dame junior receiver TJ Jones has been a part of that cycle, and he is now watching his former mentor, former Irish All-American Michael Floyd, become a student once again, this time under the tutelage of Arizona Cardinals All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald.
Jones laughed Tuesday when he recalled the lessons he learned by rooming with Floyd during his freshman season. Now that he is an upperclassman, he enjoys helping the Notre Dame youngsters learn their way just as he did.
“It's crazy, but I'm doing a lot of teaching,” Jones said. “The way that we run our offense now, I can run a play and come back, if one of the younger guys has a question, I can tell them why I did this.”
Jones is the leading returning receiver after catching 38 passes as a sophomore. He is part of an older group, but not necessarily an experienced one. Senior Robby Toma and graduate student John Goodman have been with the Irish program for a long time but haven't amassed a lot of catches.
Jones said all three of the older receivers have embraced their leadership roles, because acclimating to a college offense can be incredibly difficult.
“Learning our complex offense” was the biggest task facing the Irish freshmen, Jones said . “Learning the concepts rather than learning just one position and (also) adjusting to the speed of the game. A lot of times, you catch the ball and the defense is in your face. In high school, you would catch the ball and you would have yards to maneuver.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the incoming freshmen were making an impression with the coaches, so it could be any one of the receivers – or in this Irish offense, tight ends or running backs – who end up being the receiving threat.
“Our passing game can adapt to any player that is out there,” Kelly said. “We can feature anybody on the field.”
Notre Dame has another All-American receiver in tight end Tyler Eifert (63 catches) along with running back Theo Riddick (38 catches) to pair with Jones, who believes having a number of other threats, via the air and ground, helps him immensely.
“When you have a running back corps (Riddick, Cierre Wood, Amir Carlisle) like we have, you can have a balanced run game and pass game,” Jones said. “It definitely opens up catches for the receivers because they have to worry about the run and the pass.”
When he was a freshman, Jones seemingly had an easy time adjusting to the college game. He caught 23 passes in his first season in South Bend, including touchdowns in each of his first two games. However, he admits that he had a lot to learn, and when he would room on the road with Floyd the two would talk at length about the nuances of being a great receiver.
“When you were down (Michael) could pick you up,” Jones said. “But when you messed up (it was) 'Hey, you were wrong.'”