Notre Dame Football: DaVaris Daniels
The players finally learned their fates two weeks ago -- both have said they will not play this season -- but that did not stop them from having some fun with the situation during this holiday season. This tweet from teammate Jarron Jones shows Daniels and Moore wearing prison outfits for Halloween.
Max Redfield -- No. 10 himself, just like Daniels -- sported a towel hanging from his uniform Saturday with hand-written numbers: 6 (KeiVarae Rusell), 8 (Kendall Moore) and 11 (Ishaq Williams), saying that was all he could fit.
"He was positive about it, that's the kind of guy he is," Luke said. "But he came up to me and was like, 'Keep balling man, I love you.' I said, 'I love you, too.' That was it."
Collectively, this all made for the most public display -- and even mere mention, really -- of any of the five Irish players who have been suspended since Aug. 15. Notre Dame, after holding a press conference that day to announce its internal academic investigation, has said it would not be revealing any of the results from the players' hearings, leaving those decisions in the hands of the college kids who were involved.
So there was Russell, the only of the five players whose fate seems remotely clear, announcing his intentions on Instagram on Friday. And there was head coach Brian Kelly, who has been the de facto spokesman for this ordeal despite not receiving full information, standing up there at the podium some three times a week, doing his best to decipher the indecipherable for everyone.
And, after escaping North Carolina on Saturday, winning 50-43 to get to 6-0 before their showdown at Florida State, there were Notre Dame players talking about those who weren't there, finally letting some of their feelings show as a process that began on July 29 -- when the Office of General Counsel initiated an investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence -- continued on through the weekend with little clarity.
"Obviously we've shown appreciation to them, because they've been out there with us over the summer and in the spring, working just as hard as we work," Redfield said. "They're no different than us. They're still our brothers even though they had to leave the team."
Kelly has driven home the message of blocking out noise since he first arrived on campus five years ago. He has said throughout this season that he feels for the suspended guys, though he cannot spend too much time playing the what-if game.
But even he was fine with his players expressing themselves in the manners that they did this past weekend, recognizing that keeping quiet for nearly two months could not have been the easiest thing for curious teammates.
"I think they're being good teammates and just recognizing their teammates in that situation," Kelly said Sunday. "I'm generally not big on that, but they've handled themselves very well through social media. They have not formed opinions of such, and so I did see a towel, I did not make a big deal of it because I thought that our team as a whole has handled the situation very well and felt that I was OK with it."
Notre Dame faces its biggest opponent yet in five days, as it puts its perfect record on the line at the defending champs' house, the location perhaps not being such a bad thing.
"I think it can work both ways," Kelly said of playing on the road. "One way is you're at home and it's great to be at home. Being away there can be a lot of noise. It just depends on your team. This team, the great thing about it is that they love to play and they believe they're going to win. I really don't know if it matters one way or the other."The Irish can enter Tallahassee a confident bunch. They have not lost in two months, despite the absence of five players creating an eternal silence that seems as deafening as most outside noise is.
"I believe it is [for all five players]," Kelly said after practice. "I don't have confirmation on all five, but I know that from what I hear it's, first-hand I know Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm hearing second-hand that they're trying to get them all wrapped up by Thursday of next week."
"I'm not really certain of that," Kelly said. "I've heard a committee. I know that committee is comprised of faculty and students. I don't know the ratio, and I don't know if it is the same committee hearing all five. I don't know the specifics, nor have I, quite frankly, asked."
The school announced Aug. 15 that it was withholding DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell out from practices and games as it investigated academic misconduct. The school later announced, on Aug. 28, that Eilar Hardy would be withheld as well, and Kelly said that same day that the investigation was complete. The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.
The five suspended players attend classes and have been welcomed back into the football complex, dining with teammates and working out with Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo.
Kelly has chosen all along to hold the players out of team meetings, and he said Thursday that, despite considering putting them back in those gatherings to potentially have them ready to play, he opted against it because the process is seemingly close to completion.
Coach Brian Kelly said Thursday that he still has not been updated on the status of the suspended players since he last shared information on the matter with reporters. Whether he was referring to his comments on Sept. 4 that none of the players had been through honesty committee hearings yet is unclear. What remains clear, though, is that Kelly and the Irish would welcome the players back for Saturday night's game against Purdue if they were cleared Friday.
Kelly reiterated that he does not know much about the process that has been going on for nearly a month now, after the school announced Aug. 15 that it was withholding DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell out from practices and games as it investigated academic misconduct. The school later announced, on Aug. 28, that Eilar Hardy would be withheld as well, and Kelly said that same day that the investigation was complete, meaning only hearings and potential appeals remained.
The players attend classes and have been welcomed back in the football complex, eating with teammates and working out with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, though Kelly has chosen to hold them out of team meetings.
The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.
Kelly said Thursday that he is anxious, that the players are anxious and that reporters are anxious, but that he does not know much, choosing to let the academic arm of the school conduct matters as it sees fit.
"This is separation from church and state in the sense," Kelly said. "This is the deans and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play-calling and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back but I get it, and they work and that's their job and so I really don't have any say on it."
Notes: Kelly said that former Irish and NFL player and current graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy has not missed a day of practice despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. The NCAA allowed the school to hire former player Pat Eilers as a GA in light of the matter, but Kelly said Eilers cannot coach a unit during practice while McCarthy is still there.
"Incredible," Kelly said of McCarthy. "His resolve and his [desire] to be out at practice, just [a] pretty inspirational young man. It's been awesome to be around him and to get to know him even more, it doesn't surprise me why he's been such a favorite around here. He's a pretty inspirational kid."
Kelly also said Torii Hunter Jr. (Grade 3 groin tear) will not play Saturday despite showing progress throughout the week.
Notre Dame would beat USC 14-10. The Irish would beat Michigan State 17-13. They would beat Michigan 13-6. A win is a win is a win -- 37 in all through his first four seasons, best start ever by a Notre Dame coach -- and Kelly would remind everyone, including his own players at times, that you take it and move on.
The Irish stand 2-0 following Saturday's shutout of Michigan, halfway through the "manageable" first third of their schedule. And while the competition level through two weeks can be debated, and while all that premature Heisman talk is, well, premature, it is a whole lot easier this time around to look down the road and envision the tantalizing possibilities that could await these Irish if all comes together.
This was far from an overnight revelation for Kelly. It has, nonetheless, breathed new life into a program amid a new era of scheduling (ACC deal) and postseason possibilities (playoff/access bowls).
"When I came to Notre Dame, I didn't think it would take us five years to kind of get to the offense that we wanted to run," Kelly said Sunday. "It's just the circumstances have been such. But we're starting to evolve into the kind of offensive and defensive structure that allows us to play fast and play aggressive, play the kind of style of football we want to play. It's taken some time to get there, and we've still got a long way to go. But it's obviously been a good start."
It begins with Everett Golson, the once-beleaguered signal-caller who has bounced back from a season-long suspension to do everything asked of him and then some through two games. He has completed 37 of 56 passes for 521 yards, tallying eight total touchdowns and avoiding a single turnover. He has shown much more command of the offense and a better understanding of the game as a whole, zipping passes before defenses can get to him and making something out of nothing when under duress. He has done all this despite being the victim of a number of drops, despite missing his best target in DaVaris Daniels, one of five suspended players whose status perplexingly remains unclear.
"I think they also use him well," said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose team forced Golson out of action two years ago before being picked apart by him the second time around, Saturday.
"I think Brian does a good job. There's a lot of three-step game in it, a lot of slants. I think that he's matured. I think I said that this week coming in, he's a much better quarterback than he was two years ago. Just watching the Rice game, I would say the same thing after watching our game."
The Stanford vulnerabilities that an undermanned USC squad revealed Saturday make the Irish's Oct. 4 matchup with the Cardinal look all the more winnable. Notre Dame may very well be favored now in its next four games and, frankly, should win those next four games.
The math isn't all that difficult, not with that Oct. 18 date at the national champs' house standing out a little bolder than the rest: Can Notre Dame enter Tallahassee with a 6-0 record?
Who knew three weeks ago, when news of the school's internal academic investigation broke, that that would be a question asked so soon? Who knew that Kelly and Golson would be fielding Heisman Trophy questions two games into the season?
"Avoid the noise," Golson said, "avoid the noise."
"Yeah, let's put him up for it," Kelly was cracking minutes earlier. "Sure. Throw him in there."
The novelty of a new season has brought on new questions through two games. And the man answering most of them no longer looks worse for the wear.
Kelly said after practice that he had been told on Monday that the hearings for DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy would take place very quickly. He also said that process — a result of an internal academic misconduct investigation that the school announced Aug. 15, and that concluded Aug. 28 — has yet to be completed.
"I could get 'em ready, like right away. I mean, they're physically conditioned. I know they're working out with [strength and conditioning] coach [Paul] Longo, I can tell you that for sure. So they are conditioned and they've been going to class; I know that. And other than that, they haven't been taking any football reps. But if we were hypothetically to get that call, they'd be running out of that tunnel on Saturday."
The five players have been held out of games, practice, team meetings and film study, but they are attending classes and are welcome around the football complex. Kelly said holding them out of meetings and the film room was his decision, as he would rather them focus on their schoolwork. The fifth-year Irish coach said he has had little personal contact with the players but has checked up on them in text message. They still receive their four tickets for games and are in the stands.
Kelly said he is not expecting a decision to come Friday, but attributed that more to the mindset he has taken with the Irish since news of the investigation broke nearly three weeks ago.
"I have not had expectations really one way or the other," Kelly said. "I haven't woke up in the morning going, 'Is this the day?' I have dealt with this situation when I first heard of it with maybe blinders on in that I'm focused on the guys that I have. And maybe — I miss the guys, I care about them, but I've really just, I have a responsibility to the guys on my team, and so I've really just stayed focused on them and coaching the heck out of them. And I hope that doesn't come across as callous, but that's really been my focus. I haven't woke up every morning going, 'Is this the day?' I really haven't done that."
Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth
Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC
Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)
Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.
High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.
Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.
Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)
Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.
They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe
"I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship," a smiling Brian Kelly said of Golson and the Irish's 12-1 campaign in 2012, serving caution to the idea that this is a quarterback competition in name only.
Kelly, who unofficially kicked off the 2014 preseason Friday for the Irish with his pre-camp news conference, addressed several pressing topics, though none as frequent as the battle between Golson and Malik Zaire to start under center Aug. 30 against Rice.
"I think it can show itself and when it does, we'll be ready to make that declaration. It just has not shown itself yet, but I'm confident that it will, and when it does, we'll be ready to make that call."
The last time Kelly entered camp with a quarterback conundrum, two years ago, he ultimately chose Golson over three others nine days before the season opener. The fifth-year Notre Dame coach said he would likely name a starter by that time period once again this year, adding that having two quarterbacks with similar skill sets has made life much easier for all offensively.
"This is the first time that we don't have to have two scripts for two quarterbacks," Kelly said. "They are running the same plays and that is a huge advantage in terms of building that consistency throughout the ranks for everybody, from the offensive line, for the receivers, to the quarterback."
Notre Dame's run to the national title game in the 2012 season was led, of course, by its defense, with Golson, then a redshirt freshman, managing the offense. But his return to the program this spring following an academic-related suspension last fall has been met by a stiff challenge from Zaire, a left-handed redshirt freshman who has said and done all of the right things up to this point.
With fall camp commencing Monday at Culver Military Academy — where Notre Dame will hold its first week of practices — the race between the two will resume.
Not that Kelly minds the competition.
"I'm not in here complaining about our quarterback position," Kelly said. "I'm actually pretty excited that I have two guys that are moving in a very good direction."
Injury items: Defensive lineman Tony Springmann's football career is over because of a back issue. The redshirt junior had been rehabbing from an ACL tear and an ensuing infection initially suffered during last year's preseason camp, and he will go on a medical scholarship. … In better news, linebacker Jarrett Grace is "close" to being ready for the season after a pair of right leg surgeries following the breaking of his tibia and fibula in an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State. … Tight end Mike Heuerman (hernia) is out for a month. … Kelly was pleased with the recoveries of Nick Martin (MCL), Christian Lombard (wrist) and Ben Councell (ACL) following season-ending injuries last season, as each appear to be fine. Kelly said that Martin, like his brother Zack before him, is now the clear leader of the offensive line. … Tight end Ben Koyack underwent offseason shoulder surgery, but Kelly said he is fine.
Other notes: Kelly said freshman linebacker Nile Sykes, who transferred to Indiana shortly after enrolling at Notre Dame, "wasn't the right fit," though he did nothing wrong with the Irish and was given a recommendation upon his departure. … Kelly praised DaVaris Daniels' physical and mental maturity following the receiver's spring exile for academic reasons, adding: "I think we saw some really good signs and we want to be able to see that every day." … Florida cornerback transfer Cody Riggs has rounded into better shape physically since he arrived this summer, with Kelly praising his approach: "He's a Notre Dame man." … Kelly also praised Johnny Lujack, who is recovering from spinal surgery, saying he has been struck by the former Heisman winner's humor in all situations.
"He’s obviously physically done a lot of work in the time away and he’s in very good shape and now it’s just a matter of getting his legs back," coach Brian Kelly said minutes earlier, before the annual charity event put on by him and his wife, Paqui.
Kelly is happy to have Daniels back after his spring-semester suspension for what the receiver deemed as academic-related shortcomings. Daniels brings another dimension to an Irish offense looking to take off in Year 5 of the Kelly era, as the redshirt junior is the team's best vertical threat and the only wideout with any extensive game experience playing with quarterback Everett Golson.
Daniels has 80 career catches for 1,235 yards and seven touchdowns. He spent this spring working out at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Illinois.
Getting to spend more summer time with Daniels and the rest of the roster as part of relaxed NCAA rules this year, Kelly is eager to reinstall offensive and defensive packages, especially with 20 of his 21 incoming freshmen arriving this weekend and starting classes Monday.
"We'll get a chance to work with them next Wednesday, so they'll come in on Sunday, they'll get their physicals on Monday," Kelly said. "We should be able to clear them all -- except for Tyler Luatua, who will not be here because of graduation, until Wednesday -- so they should all be cleared for our OTA on Wednesday. We'll get our first look at it, and we've got kind of an idea of where we'll move those guys, and then I'll probably have a better sense by next week."
Another one of those newcomers, transfer cornerback Cody Riggs from Florida, is already on campus and working with the team, as are freshmen Justin Brent and Andrew Trumbetti.
- Notre Dame quarterback target Travis Waller of Servite (Calif.) will announce his decision at 10 p.m. ET.
- The Irish landed Park Tudor (Ind.) defensive lineman Brandon Tiassum on Sunday.
- BlueandGold.com's Andrew Owens previews DaVaris Daniels' upcoming season (subscription required).
- IrishIllustrated's Tim Prister looks at Notre Dame's all-underrated offensive team (subscription required).
In what might come as a slightly bigger surprise, tight end Ben Koyack made the third team and cornerback KeiVarae Russell made the fourth team. Koyack's stock obviously is rising after a strong finish to last season, especially with Troy Niklas having left early for the NFL. Now a senior in the No. 1 tight end role, Koyack will be counted upon to become an integral part of the Irish's passing game, which has featured no shortage of tight end success in recent years. Steele obviously sees a lot in the Oil City, Pennsylvania, native, who caught 10 passes last season for 171 yards and three scores.
Russell, meanwhile, is coming off consecutive strong seasons at corner and, in keeping with his usual unfiltered self, has talked openly about trying to become the best cornerback in the country. Playing more press coverage under new coordinator Brian VanGorder should only help in that effort, and it would not be a huge shock if Russell were to play his way into first-team or second-team All-America status by season's end.
DaVaris Daniels, arguably the Irish's best skill player, did not make any of the 30-man teams, though receiver looks to be a ridiculously stacked position throughout the nation this year. If Daniels can pick up where left off with Everett Golson two years ago, and if his off-site training during his spring exile pays dividends, the redshirt junior figures to be one of the better receivers in the country.
One familiar name at receiver who did garner preseason All-America status was Deontay Greenberry, who was once committed to Notre Dame and enters his junior season at Houston on Steele's fourth team.
Florida State, which hosts Notre Dame Oct. 18 in the Irish's first true road game, led the nation with five first-teamers and 11 total players on Steele's list.
Kelly said that the school's readmission board was meeting Thursday to determine the future of Daniels, who was suspended from school for the spring semester because of an academic issue. With Notre Dame's final exams having taken place last week — and with Daniels being the second player to get suspended for academic reasons in 2013, after Everett Golson following last spring — Kelly also said that, to the best of his knowledge, everyone on the team is in good academic standing.
If he's back, Daniels would immediately become the top returning target for Notre Dame, and he would be the only one who has extensive experience with Golson.
Daniels had 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013, each number ranking second on the Irish behind TJ Jones. For his career, Daniels has caught 80 passes for 1,235 yards and seven touchdowns.
The burden of carrying a green receiving corps is a task that Kelly thinks Daniels is up to, and he hopes that the redshirt junior has matured in his time away from the program these past four months.
"It depends on how you look at that, right? It's good and bad," Kelly said of the burden awaiting Daniels. "I just really think he's got to be a man and step up and take care of his business. Look, we all know, you guys watch, you guys know football as well as anybody -- he's immensely talented. He's got to have his foot on the pedal all the time. And if he does, he's as good as anybody out there, that I've coached.
"But there's only so many times you can go to the whip. And this is proof-positive, right? Sooner or later, you've got to do it. And I think this hopefully is that time where he goes, 'I've got to be cognizant of the fact that I've got a lot riding on this. I've got to be that guy every single down.'"
- The QB rotation is stable: Everett Golson is back from his 2013 suspension, hardened and bigger than ever. And Malik Zaire has taken full advantage of the opportunity Brian Kelly has given him, after Kelly declared the job open. (Notre Dame had just two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.) While few expect Golson to relinquish his hold on the starting role, the prospect of a hungry, capable backup has to make new QBs coach Matt LaFleur happy.
- Greg Bryant looks like a playmaker: A rough start to Bryant's career last year might have been a blessing in disguise, as knee tendinitis allowed him to redshirt and essentially get a do-over in 2014. The returns this spring have been phenomenal, with the No. 2 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 bringing a burst to the run game that was absent last season. He turned heads in the spring game and says he is carrying a more mature head on his shoulders after last season, as he's hungry to get back on the field and make plays.
- The secondary is primed to breakout: Notre Dame does not lack for bodies among its defensive backs. KeiVarae Russell enters his third year of starting ready to be one of the nation's top corners, and the Irish return four safeties with starting experience -- one of whom, Matthias Farley, moved to nickelback this spring. Throw in Florida transfer Cody Riggs at corner this summer -- as well as the aggressive approach of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will bring more press coverage -- and the secondary has all of the ingredients to be very good in 2014.
- Where will the pass-rush come from? The Irish said goodbye to Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two linemen who made their living in opposing backfields. There are simply no big, athletic bodies like them on this year's roster. With a revamped front-seven, VanGorder will be tasked with finding new ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps senior Ishaq Williams, now primarily at end, can add a boost to the line.
- Which receivers will step up? With DaVaris Daniels (academics) gone this spring, it was essentially an open audition for Irish receivers, only two of whom had ever caught balls from Golson before (Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack). Corey Robinson has continued his growth after a promising freshman campaign, and Koyack will have to emerge as a bigger receiving threat after handling mostly blocking duties next to the departed Troy Niklas. Daniels' expected return this summer will provide a major boost to this group.
- Will special teams play finally improve? Few areas have given Notre Dame trouble in recent years the way special teams has, particularly the punt return game. Awful weather this spring limited outdoor work, which limited ideal return opportunities. Bryant could emerge as the guy at punt return, though Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr. may contend for chances as well.
Notre Dame will average better than 30 points per game for the first time in the Kelly era. In Golson, the Irish have the ideal quarterback in place to run the Kelly offense. And with the defense taking massive personnel hits up front while adjusting to a new scheme, the offense will be relied on more than ever to stretch the field, carry the load and put points on the board.
"Imagine four years from now. I'm only 21 right now. I'm young for my [grade], so I have plenty of time to mature and to get better than where I'm at now."
He did forget to mention his team MVP honors from 2013. Forgive him; his degree wasn't in marketing.
While many of his former teammates stayed in South Bend, Ind., after Notre Dame's pro day, Jones is spending the home stretch of the pre-draft process back home in Atlanta. His preparation includes strength and footwork training at DSA Training in Marietta, Ga., and it also includes being back under the same roof as his mother and three of his five siblings, a welcome reprieve that he says helps make up for lost time after four years in college. The last of those years away included 70 catches, 1,108 yards, nine touchdowns and plenty of heads turned during the future pro's biggest job rehearsal.
In the months since, Jones has relied heavily on his godfather, former Notre Dame great Raghib Ismail, whose biggest words of advice have been to invest in his body, something Jones -- who checked in at six feet, 188 pounds at the NFL scouting combine -- has taken to heart during these past four months of training.
"I think that the biggest area I needed to improve was my physical strength, my weight, being able to carry 195-200 strong without losing any speed and being able to physically handle myself at the NFL level," Jones said. "And I think in the three or four months I've been able to -- not at the ideal weight I want right now -- but with the weight I've gained, I've been able to also maximize the strength and the speed of the game as well and not losing any quickness or speed with [the addition of] a couple pounds as well."
Jones' family has given him needed space during his time back home, careful not to overload him with questions similar to the ones he's been getting from everywhere else since completing his college career. Group text messaging has kept him in touch with his fellow Irish teammates going through the same process as him, as it has with the receivers behind at Notre Dame looking to fill his void. (That includes the academically-exiled DaVaris Daniels, whom Jones expects to return to the team and "make the impact that most people should be expecting.")
Jones' well-chronicled marine biology interests have been put on hold, though he says he can't help but watch the Discovery Channel during his free time.
Still, the lead-up to next week's NFL draft has carried a bittersweet taste for Jones, who lost his father Andre to a brain aneurysm in the summer of 2011 at the age of 42. Pursuing the professional dream was something often discussed between Jones and his father, who was a starting end on the Irish's 1988 national title team.
On the doorstep of completing that journey, Jones knows his father is looking down on him with a smile.
"I would hope to think he's real proud," said Jones, a projected mid-round pick. "Definitely having my degree already in my kitchen right now and being able to go through this process and -- I don't want to say expect to be drafted, but having the opportunity to be drafted, hearing there's talk about me being drafted, it was enough in itself for him to really be proud because that's something we've talked about since I was a kid, since I really could remember."
"He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road," the Irish offensive coordinator said. "Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."
Hunter saw action mostly on the outside this spring. Like most of his peers, however, the redshirt freshman also played in the slot. He had once expressed hopes of following in the footsteps of TJ Jones, last year's team MVP, by playing all over the field. But he was less direct when asked on the eve of the spring game.
"It just depends," Hunter said. "I just want to play wherever the coaches need me. I just want to see the field. If it does end up being the way TJ was used then definitely that's the way I'll be."
This isn't all necessarily a bad thing for Notre Dame; it's just the way things are until DaVaris Daniels' presumed summer return. From the towering Corey Robinson to the early enrollee Justin Brent, it was an all-hands-on-deck operation for Irish wideouts this spring.
There are no fewer than seven scholarship players fighting for meaningful roles this fall. But the pecking order -- let alone knowing who will line up where to begin with -- is really anyone's guess.
"I don't think that that's going to happen in June, per se," head coach Brian Kelly said. "These guys need so much development work, Amir Carlisle needs to continue to develop. Chris Brown has got to continue to work on a number of things. Will Fuller. A lot of that is development work that in June will continue to take place. Then we're very hopeful that if things go the right way, Daniels comes back to us.
"We got a very competitive situation with Robinson, Daniels, Fuller, Brown, Carlisle. We've got a nice situation there. I think it's a just competitive situation. We've got to get the best players on the field, because the tight end is going to be on the field as well. I like to keep a tight end on the field.
"So we're talking about three positions and arguably you've got, half a dozen guys there that can compete. So what's going to be the deciding factor for me is, I'm not settled on any one of those guys right now. I think it will be a very competitive situation. I think they are going to push each other and we're going to be the beneficiary. Notre Dame's offense is beginning to be the beneficiary."