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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Through three games, TJ Jones has proved himself as a legitimate No. 2 receiver for Notre Dame, opposite Michael Floyd. He’s not just the player coach Brian Kelly got in his face for a mistake in the season opener.
Jones, who has two touchdowns and 126 yards receiving, has worked his way up the depth chart with the Fighting Irish, but his biggest challenge came off the field while he was getting ready for his sophomore season.
In June, Jones’ father Andre, who played football at Notre Dame, died at age 42 as a result of a brain aneurysm. Jones no longer needed to just step up on the field, he needed solidify his family life.
“His mom needed his help, and he needed to be really a rock for the family, so he moved on,” Kelly said Wednesday.
With five siblings, four younger than him, Jones was forced to fill the hole left in his family after his father’s death.
“I’ve become the man of the house, so my problems don’t really matter to me anymore,” Jones said. “It’s more helping my family out.”
On campus for summer workouts, Jones flew home to Atlanta after hearing his father was sick. One week later, Jones returned to South Bend at the urging of his mother.
“It was very hard to leave, because I definitely wanted to stay there and help my mom and family through the time,” he said, “but after about a week of being there my mom told me she wanted me to get back and finish summer school classes strong and get ready for the season because I needed to set an example for my younger siblings.”
That example started with a pregame ceremony honoring his father before the South Florida game. Andre Jones played outside linebacker at Notre Dame from 1987-1990 under coach Lou Holtz. He was a starter on the 1988 national championship team.
“It was real hard. Seeing my mom out there for the first time in six weeks and she was crying so that made me more emotional,” Jones said of the ceremony. “It definitely just hit home that he wasn’t going to be standing there in the tunnel when I came out this year.”
Jones said he struggled moving on, but his play on the field hasn’t reflected it. In fact, Kelly said Jones has become more accountable on the field.
“He’s not a freshman anymore. Last year there would be times where he would just act like a freshman,” Kelly said. “He’s a lot more mature in the way he handles himself. I think the biggest thing is he plays really fast now. He’s a pretty tough matchup guy.”
Averaging 10.5 yards per catch on 12 receptions, Jones has helped open up a passing game relying heavily on sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees and Floyd.
“I think he got a lot better,” Floyd said. ” I think the defenses that we play take a big emphasis on me going down field. Just to have TJ on the other side to be able to make big plays for us is great.”
Jones no longer lets the little mistakes get to him.
In the South Florida game, a pass from Rees hit Jones in the helmet. Jones wasn’t looking for the ball. Kelly was caught by television cameras yelling at the young receiver, but Jones said he understood that he needed to learn from the play and move on.
“With everything that’s happened, it’s put a lot of things in perspective for me,” Jones said. “A lot of the little things I used to let get to me, I realized this year don’t matter. I’ve seen the bigger picture and that’s what I focus on now and push myself working towards.”
Jones was used to the criticism.
“He was my toughest critic, but he was also my biggest fan and he used to tell me that after every time we would talk,” Jones said of his father.
Andre Jones went through many of the situations his son deals with at Notre Dame, and TJ Jones said he misses the conversations the two would have about being a college football player in South Bend.
“It’s changed a lot for me because I don’t have that person to go to when I have questions about football or life at Notre Dame because he knew all that,” Jones said. “So I don’t really have anyone to talk to now.”
Now, Jones said he relies on wide receivers coach Tony Alford for life lessons. In June, Alford was the first to inform Jones that his father was sick.
“I know (Alford) and my dad had a very close relationship,” Jones said. “He’s kind of like that father figure in my life here on campus. So I’m able to talk to him about anything if I needed to.”
Jones calls home several times a week to talk to his mother, brothers and sisters. He’s there to help his brother playing high school football and his mother raising a family of five at home.
“I just think to myself every day that I’ve got six other people at home that are counting on me,” Jones said. “So every day I’ve got to push myself that much harder to make sure that I make it not for myself, but also for my family. I know they’re counting on me.”
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