- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- TJ Jones was the last Notre Dame player to meet the media this week, anxious reporters a casualty of what has become the senior's weekly routine of receiving a massage every Wednesday or Thursday. Those rubdowns come after practice, which Jones usually prepares for by attending treatment sessions on Sunday or Monday, all so that he can be ready for the running and hitting that awaits in Tuesday's practice.
What that treatment is for usually depends on which body part Jones hurt in the previous Saturday's game -- and if there is a Saturday Notre Dame game, Jones impairing an appendage of some kind is all but certain, even if the extent of the damage is not known in the immediate aftermath.
"Four years ago I would've been looking to miss practice," the senior said. "I would've really just kind of looked for every chance I got to kind of just milk the injury."
Not anymore, not as one of two Irish offensive captains on a unit still seeking its identity halfway through the season, with rival USC coming to town on Saturday night.
Yes, being Notre Dame's leading receiver and punt returner has taken a toll on a body that the program generously lists at 5-foot-11½ and 195 pounds. It is a frame that has withstood the beating that comes from being the Irish's go-to threat, from catching 33 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns, from returning seven punts for 71 yards, and from being targeted countless times more.
"Overall, wide receivers are looked at to be some of the softer people out on the field, but TJ definitely shows that it's just the opposite," freshman receiver James Onwualu, Jones' roommate on road trips, said. "He gets hit a whole bunch in the game -- he's still sticking his head into plays, blocking for our running backs and doing everything he can when he doesn't have the ball as well. I think the toughness that he shows coming back every week to play his best for the team is really unselfish, and it makes him an even better player than he already is."
The most notable of the bruises came early in a Week 2 loss at Michigan, Jones coming down hard and suffering what coach Brian Kelly said the next day was a slight shoulder sprain. He finished with nine catches for 94 yards and a heads-up touchdown in the loss.
Notre Dame's next defeat was hardly kinder to Jones, who rolled an ankle late in the Oklahoma game.
Kelly, who raised a few eyebrows in August by publicly declaring Jones a first-round NFL talent, said the receiver's toughness has been acquired, a byproduct of being thrust into meaningful moments as a true freshman in 2010.
"He has elevated himself in the sense that he now plays with a mental and physical toughness," Kelly said. "There are times where those bumps and bruises that you mentioned -- which affect everybody, right, in this game of college football? -- may have affected him from week to week. It does not affect him now. He fights through them. He's in practice. He's on the ground diving and making catches. He's on the ground more in practice than any of our young freshmen because he's competing all the time.
"These are the marks of great players. Every great player that I've had practices that way. That wasn't the case with him, and he has developed that over his time here at Notre Dame. He's had others to see in terms of he's seen a Michael Floyd in the way they practice, he's seen a Manti Te'o, he's seen a Tyler Eifert and the way they practice. He's obviously at that level."
Jones, who volunteered for the vacant punt return spot this year, calls it all "normal soreness." He says he never let a nick or bump keep him from the practice field earlier in his career, but admitted "if there was something where I didn't have to go as hard, I may have taken a play off or jogged instead of ran full-speed back then."
The son of the late Andre Jones -- an end on the Irish's last national title team -- attributes maturity to his ability to recover so quickly. He has been more proactive over the years, learning to appreciate Notre Dame's athletic training staff more while jumping into the cold tub or onto the masseuse table quicker than he used to.
This past weekend's bye has served as a bit of a welcome reprieve, too.
"I enjoyed it a lot, this is the freshest I've felt since summer," Jones said. "This was the first real break we've gotten since our three-week-long camp this year, which was longer than normal. So this is the first time I'm actually feeling kind of refreshed and really 100 percent."
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information