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September 3, 2010
In some ways, TJ Jones knows exactly what to expect when he enters Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
Over the course of his life the freshman wide receiver has heard all about it from his father, former Irish defensive end Andre Jones, and even attended a couple games himself during the recruiting process, including last year's close loss to USC.
But that's not to say Jones has any idea what it will be like for him this weekend against Purdue, when he will run out of the tunnel as a starter just months after enrolling last January.
"I'm waiting to feel what all the players feel that first time they run out the tunnel," Jones said. "But at the same time it's kind of still I don't know what to expect exactly, being my first collegiate game. I'm just kind of, I'm gonna feel things out and give it my best."
What Jones has proven during spring ball and fall camp is he deserves the opportunity to run out on the field knowing he will definitely play against Purdue.
It didn't take long for the former four-star prospect to shoot up the depth chart after graduating high school early to enroll at Notre Dame last winter. Jones arrived on campus almost literally at the same time as the current coaching staff, which convinced Jones to stick by his commitment during the transition period.
Once Jones made his way to South Bend he not only had to make the adjustment off the field but also in absorbing a playbook that was vastly more deep than what he dealt with in high school.
To his credit, Jones never missed a beat and the coaching staff noticed.
"In the spring there was so many things he had to grasp," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. "He was in a new environment. He came from down south and now he's up north. Thrust into a brand new situation with a brand new coaching staff. He really didn't have the relationships with the new coaches that arrived at ND.
"Just learning any offense that was so much more complex and diverse than his high school offense. New set of friends, new culture here. All those things weighed on him and yet he still managed to keep his head above water. Now he's been here. He doesn't seem like a freshman to me. He seems like a vet. He's been here literally as long as I've been here. If he's a rookie then I'm a rookie too."
Jones feels the same way about himself.
After a practice earlier this week, Jones said he's more of a "college player" now than he was when he went through is first warp speed spring practices under head coach Brian Kelly.
Not only has Jones made gains in the weight room but his focus on absorbing the playbook has paid big dividends. During fall camp he maintained his spot in the starting lineup, holding off veteran Duval Kamara and beating out the departed Shaq Evans.
"TJ has exhibited a maturity in handling all the things that we've thrown at him at that wide receiver position at an early age," Kelly said. "Some are older and struggle with it, quite frankly. And he's been able to process it all and retain it. I think a big part of this is retention. The ability to come back and do it. And TJ has shown a great capacity for retention."
The next step in the evolution of Jones is how he handles the game day environment.
It's one thing to run with the lead group in practice. It's another to take the playbook and the film room seriously. It's something all together different to produce on Saturdays in front of 80,000 fans.
If Jones handles that experience the same way he's mastered early enrollment, spring practice and training camp, the Irish could have something special.
"Personally the bigger the crowd the more hyped I get," Jones said. "Nerves, I mean, I may get a couple. But right now it's just I'm more excited."