- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Scott Booker approached TJ Jones after a conditioning workout this past spring with a fairly straightforward suggestion: Hey, I want you to return punts this year.
Jones, incidentally, had been meaning to talk with Notre Dame's special teams coordinator about such a move. He, like everyone else, saw the way the Irish had struggled in that department in his three previous years in the program. He had gotten his feet wet as a returner in his freshman year but, while also trying to balance receiver duties, became a bit overwhelmed as a newcomer.
Entering his senior campaign, Jones thought, now might be as good of a time as any to make one more contribution in an area his team sorely needed it.
"He really wants to do this job," head coach Brian Kelly said. "I think you have to have that want and desire and belief that you can be really good at it."
Just how good remains to be seen, but the Irish are hoping the benefit of having their leading returning receiver back deep fielding punts can shore up a return unit that has finished no better than 100th nationally in Kelly's first three years at Notre Dame.
"You can never really predict what you're going to get with punt returns," Jones said. "You never really know how well they're going to block, who's going to get downfield. You may have 10 yards, you may have two yards, but at the end of the day you can't be afraid to take risks back there. You can't be afraid to take a hit, because ultimately with those risks a lot of times comes a big reward. Now that doesn't mean you make a dumb decision, but just make smart, kind of not-the-safe decisions all the time."
The limited success Notre Dame has experienced has come with a dynamic playmaker fielding punts — notably, Michael Floyd's 41-yard return in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, a play that accounted for three more yards than the Irish's previous 12-game total of 38.
Davonte' Neal, who transferred to Arizona this spring, fielded all 21 punts last year for the Irish as a true freshman, tallying just 2.2 yards per return. John Goodman led the Irish in returns in 2010 and 2011 with 21 total, averaging 1.3 and 0.6 yards per return, respectively.
Kelly has spoken of a more aggressive approach this fall, and he thinks Jones is just the man to spearhead that attack.
"We did an extensive offseason study, I'll just give you one example," Kelly said. "We had seven safe punts against Purdue, seven safe punts where our defense was on the field, and it was just the circumstances of the game. They punted four times inside our 50‑yard line. Very rarely are you going to bring your punt return team on there. We hope that we're able to get into situations where we can get our punt return team on the field. I think we've put some guys in there that we think that we can force punt returns more often where we don't have to have safe punt on the field.
"We've looked at a lot of different situations where we believe that we can get our punt return team on the field and a guy back there that really wants to get that job done. Now, take both of those together, that punt return team now knows they've got a guy back there who's a senior captain that wants to do their job. There's a big motivation factor for those guys to want to get that job done for him, as well."
Jones said he would practice catching punts twice a week on his own during the offseason, and he made it a point during camp practices to avoid waving the fair-catch signal.
Developing the right mentality is another variable, he said, one that will inevitably have to absorb some low points if there is any hope of eventually becoming effective.
"Punt return is different, it's kind of something you have to become good at," Jones said. "You can't take high school punt returns and then transition it to college punt returns; you have to be dedicated and passionate it about it. And at times it's frustrating when you can't get it, but once you do get it down it's all about your confidence level."
Whether that translates into a more productive unit remains to be seen, though Notre Dame is happy to have someone with the credentials of Jones taking the initiative.
"I think that just goes to show the type of program that coach Kelly has," Booker said. "You have senior guys that are coming and that want to take on roles, any roles that they feel like they can help and improve the team on. Whether it's offense, defense or special teams, they want to do that. And it's awesome to have TJ back there and it's a good thing."