Notre Dame Football: T.J. Jones

Irish lunch links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
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Enjoy the weekend, gang.

Irish lunch links

May, 19, 2014
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I should've trademarked this stadium grass selling idea when I had the chance.
OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- DaVaris Daniels' return to Notre Dame could come as soon as Thursday, coach Brian Kelly said. If and when Daniels makes his way back to the Irish, Kelly hopes the light has clicked on for the wide receiver as he enters the most important stage of his college career.

[+] EnlargeDaniels
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame is waiting for word on the status of DaVaris Daniels, who had 49 catches for 745 yards and seven TDs in 2013.
"I don't ever take for granted that those issues of maturity are behind any of our guys," Kelly, speaking Thursday before a golf outing outside Chicago, said with a laugh. "I mean, it's going to be a work-in-progress for him. There's no question that Double D, he's a smart kid, that he knows that this is, he's on the clock now, you know? He's got to walk the line, he's got to do things the right way. It's not just Notre Dame; it's his career, it's everything now. So I think he knows that all eyes are on him."

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 NFL draft came and gone, and, as we know by now, it was a pretty good one for Notre Dame. Here's a look at what those in NFL circles are saying about some of the drafted former Irish players and their new employers:

Zack Martin
Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Cowboys a draft of B, but he said Martin can make the Dallas offensive line among the best units in the NFL. … Todd McShay lists Martin as one of his favorites picks. … ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer says the pick of Martin was the Cowboys' best move of the draft… ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins said the Cowboys went for the best player available. … ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor says the Cowboys made the right move in passing on Johnny Manziel for Martin. … Archer says the Cowboys stayed Tony Romo-friendly by picking Martin. … Watkins says Martin may start at guard, but his future with the Cowboys is at right tackle.

Stephon Tuitt
Kiper gave the Steelers an A-, saying that Tuitt, at his 2012 level, can be a disruptive stud. … McShay lists Tuitt as one of his favorite picks, calling him a top-15 talent who is a great fit for Dick LeBeau. … Pittsburgh defensive line coach John Mitchell says Tuitt would've been a top-10 pick if he were healthy in 2013. … ESPN.com Steelers reporter Scott Brown says taking Tuitt in the second round was the club's best move. … Brown also says that Tuitt is part of a rookie group that will give the Steelers an immediate return.

Troy Niklas
In giving the Cardinals a draft grade of a B, Kiper says coach Bruce Arians might see some of what he loved about the Steelers' Heath Miller in Niklas. … ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss says Niklas solidified a tight end group that is the foundation of Arians' offense. … Weinfuss also says that Niklas is a long-term answer who will be a crucial blocker in the early going.

Louis Nix
Kiper gave the Texans an A-, saying that Nix is a steal at No. 83 if he is in decent shape and that Houston's defensive front is now extremely versatile. … ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli says Nix could start early. … Ganguli also says Nix had a good attitude about his draft slide.

Best of the rest
ESPN.com' Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams says Chris Watt fills a need and could be an answer at right guard. … ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure writes that Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff stands behind Prince Shembo. … ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano says that Bennett Jackson is part of the franchise's character-driven plan. … ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein says that T.J. Jones could end up being a surprise in the slot.
Notre Dame walked away from NFL draft weekend with eight of its former players getting picked, tied with Alabama for the second most of any school in the country, behind LSU's nine. The eight picks also marked the most in a single draft for the Irish in 20 years, as they had 10 draftees in 1994.

In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.

Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.

It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.

Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.

DRAFTED

LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)

DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)

TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)

NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)

LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)

LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)

CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)

WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders

LB Dan Fox, New York Giants

LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns

QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins

NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs

C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints
Modest would be one way to describe the way TJ Jones handled himself during his decorated four-year career at Notre Dame. Ask Jones to sell himself to his future NFL bosses, however, and the former Irish receiver wastes few breaths.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Jones
AP Photo/Joe RaymondTJ Jones, a 2013 team MVP, is expected to be a mid-round pick in the NFL draft.
"You should pick me because, in my opinion, I'm the model of consistency," Jones told ESPN.com. "I came in as a freshman at Notre Dame, I started all four years, I've gotten better each and every year, with graduating in three-and-a-half years as a senior captain in the record books at Notre Dame, and I'm nowhere near my best. This is me getting better after four years.

"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."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was hard for Notre Dame to differentiate among its wide receivers throughout the spring. Just ask Mike Denbrock about any one of them -- in this case, Torii Hunter Jr.

"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."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yes, Brian Kelly knows you've all been frustrated with Notre Dame's punt return game. Trust him, he's been every bit as frustrated as you have, and a Fighting Irish spring that opened on a minus-1-degree day back on March 3 has not given him ample opportunity to properly evaluate the unit.

Getting outside for five recent practices has presented some clarity, but the fair-catch-only rule for Saturday's Blue-Gold game won't offer many surprises to the public.

"I’m sure we’ll drop three of them and the Internet will blow up on the punt returns," Kelly quipped.

Kelly isn't sure who the main guy will be, saying Greg Bryant, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle and even sports information director Michael Bertsch will get a chance Saturday. (He was kidding about the last name ... we think.)

By recent standards, TJ Jones performed the duty remarkably last season, leading the charge on an Irish return unit that averaged 7.1 yards per punt return, good for 80th nationally. Of course, given the averages in Kelly's first three years at Notre Dame -- 2.2 (120th nationally in 2012), 3.7 (112th in 2011) and 5.4 (100th in 2010) -- there was plenty of room for growth.

Some lessons from Jones' time, however, could carry over, as Bryant received plenty of reps among the crowd during his first preseason camp last August.

"We have some previous experience watching him and spending time with him," Kelly said. "We’re relying on some of that, quite frankly, as to why we have some confidence. I can’t say for certain we’ve got that thing figured out."

Bryant admitted to having some difficulty last season adjusting to the hang time of punter Kyle Brindza. His mindset, meanwhile, is already up to speed.

"You've just got to be fearless," the redshirt freshman said. "Football is football. It's what we've been doing since we were little, so it's like one man won't bring me down."

Notre Dame pro day notes

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
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Fourteen former Notre Dame players were back on campus Thursday for pro day, with many doing drills in front of executives from all 32 NFL teams and two head coaches, Mike Tomlin (Steelers) and Gus Bradley (Jaguars).

Here are a handful of notes from the event, courtesy of the Irish's sports information department:
  • Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Kona Schwenke were the only players to take part in every drill, with Tommy Rees and Chris Watt skipping only the bench press. TJ Jones, Zack Martin and Prince Shembo only did position drills, with Shembo working with both defensive linemen and linebackers.
  • Bennett Jackson, who ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at last month's NFL combine, improved that mark to 4.40 Thursday. The only cornerbacks to top that at the combine were Justin Gilbert (4.37, Oklahoma State), Phillip Gaines (4.38, Rice), Jason Verrett (4.38, TCU) and Bradley Roby (4.39, Ohio State).
  • Fox, who was not invited to the combine, ran a 4.59 40, which, among linebackers, would have trailed only Boston College's Kevin Pierre-Louis (4.51) and Florida State's Telvin Smith (4.52) at the combine.
  • Rees, who also was not invited to the combine, had a vertical leap of 31 inches, which would have topped fellow quarterbacks Tajh Boyd (30.5, Clemson), Jimmy Garoppolo (30.5, Eastern Illinois), Teddy Bridgewater (30, Louisville), Stephen Morris (30, Miami) and Jordan Lynch (29.5, Northern Illinois). Rees completed 32 of 34 passes Thursday.
  • Louis Nix improved his 40 time from 5.42 at the combine to 5.36 Thursday. He improved his three-cone drill time from 8.29 to 7.94.
  • Watt, whose PCL tear kept him from all but the bench at the combine, ran a 5.39 40 on Thursday, in addition to a 4.76 20-yard shuttle and 7.60 three-cone drill. He did a 28.5-inch vertical and 8-foot, 8-inch broad jump.
  • Schwenke, also not invited to the combine, ran 4.88 40, 4.59 20-yard shuttle, 7.16 three-cone drill, did 29 inches on the vertical leap, nine feet on the broad jump and 27 reps on the bench,
  • George Atkinson III improved his 20-yard shuttle from 4.46 at the combine to 4.38 Thursday.
  • Calabrese, another combine snub, ran a 4.86 40, 4.60 20-yard shuttle, 7.10 three-cone drill, did a 30-inch vertical, jumped 9-feet, 2-inches on the broad jump and did 25 reps on the bench.
Nine former Notre Dame players were invited to the NFL scouting combine, including all three players who declared for the draft early.

TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson will be in Indianapolis for the Feb. 22-25 event, along with underclassmen George Atkinson III, Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt.

Notable former Irish players to be left off the list are Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese, along with Dan Fox, who spoke of the snub to CSNChicago earlier in the week, saying he plans to use it as motivation.

It will be interesting to see how a number of these players fare, and if they can seriously affect their stock either way. We all remember Manti Te'o's 40-time being a source of much questioning last year.

The intrigue this year will likely be among the early departures. Tuitt will more than likely be the first of the trio drafted, but he has already seen his name fall out of the first round of Mel Kiper Jr.'s mock draft. The jumps by Niklas and Atkinson were more surprising, but given the former's strength and the latter's speed, they could turn out to be combine stars.
We are one day away from national signing day, an occasion packed with promise. As we noticed last week when looking at the Ultimate 300, some prospects meet their potential better than others.

Recruiting is an inexact science, as projects such as the Ultimate 300 reveal, and as many rosters filled with blue-chip prospects show, too.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJaylon Smith was the only five-star recruit among Notre Dame's starters last season.
Look no further than Notre Dame, which currently has Recruiting Nation's No. 11 overall haul for the Class of 2014, down from No. 4 last season. The Irish were No. 9 in 2012, No. 9 in 2011, No. 21 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2009.

The 2009-13 classes made up the 2013 Notre Dame roster. So, using Recruiting Nation's rankings, we will take a look back at this past season's (general) starters to see where they stood as recruits.

The numbers? Notre Dame had one five-star recruit, six four-star recruits, 11 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit.

(Note: ESPN did not use the star system until 2010.)

Offense

  • QB Tommy Rees, Lake Forest (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 19 QB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • RB: George Atkinson III, Granada (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 40 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • WR: TJ Jones, Gainesville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: DaVaris Daniels, Vernon Hills (Ill.) High: Four stars, No. 65 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: Chris Brown, Hanahan (S.C.) High: Three stars, No. 66 WR, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Troy Niklas, Servite (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 19 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • T: Zack Martin, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High: No. 109 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 81
  • T: Ronnie Stanley, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High: Four stars, No. 34 OT, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • G: Chris Watt, Glenbard West (Ill.) High: No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 82
  • G: Christian Lombard, Williams Fremd (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 20 OT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • C: Nick Martin, Bishop Chatard (Ind.) High: Three stars, No. 39 OT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
Defense

  • DE: Stephon Tuitt, Monroe (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • DE: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Warren Central High: Four stars, No. 143 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 80
  • NG: Louis Nix, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High: Four stars, No. 64 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Prince Shembo, Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell High: Three stars, No. 47 DE, Class of 2010, Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Dan Fox, Cleveland St. Ignatius High: No. 76 OLB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76
  • LB: Carlo Calabrese, Verona (N.J.) High: No. 12 ILB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Jaylon Smith, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High: Five stars, No. 7 overall prospect, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 90
  • CB: Bennett Jackson, Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High: Three stars, No. 97 WR, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • CB: KeiVarae Russell, Everett (Wash.) Mariner High: Three stars, No. 28 RB, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • S: Matthias Farley, Charlotte Christian (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 92 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Austin Collinsworth, Highlands (Ky.) High: Two stars, No. 121 S, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 74
Special Teams

  • K/P: Kyle Brindza, Plymouth (Mich.) High: Three stars, No. 6 K, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79

Poll: Who will be drafted highest?

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
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Zack Martin's recent surge throughout Senior Bowl week and his rise up draft analysts' rankings make it a very real possibility that he could be the first former Notre Dame player to hear his name called on Night 1 of the NFL draft. Obviously, there is plenty of time for movements to happen and stocks to rise and fall (the combine, pro days, etc.), but this early in the stage, we are wondering who you think will go highest.

SportsNation

Which former Notre Dame player will be drafted highest?

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    39%
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    21%
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    40%
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    0%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,281)

Zack Martin, LT: The two-time Notre Dame captain capped his career by winning MVP honors in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The 6-foot-4, 308-pounder could play guard at the next level, and he set the Irish career starts record by starting 52 straight games from his second through fifth seasons.

Louis Nix III, NG: The 6-2, 342-pound interior lineman is a run-stuffer who often commands double-teams. His combination of size and quickness is rare at all levels, making him a precious commodity among NFL franchises. It is worth wondering whether his injury-plagued (meniscus surgery) final campaign in South Bend, Ind., coupled with his early signing with an agent before telling the staff -- and therefore forfeiting his final game, which he was out for anyway -- hurts him in the eyes of pro front offices.

Stephon Tuitt, DE: Another giant defensive lineman who was plagued by injuries his final year, though he overcame them to become Notre Dame's best defensive lineman by season's end. The 6-6, 312-pounder entered camp overweight after recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery, then dealt with a back issue. Still, he managed to start all 13 games and record a team-best 7.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss, while forcing a fumble and adding a pick-six. His 21.5 career sacks are second-most in program history, and we all know how coveted explosive pass-rushers are at the next level. The fact Tuitt didn't play football until high school suggests plenty of the infamous "upside" that so often seems to make scouts salivate as well.

Other: Tight end Troy Niklas leads this category, as the 6-6, 270-pounder also possesses plenty of upside after catching passes for just two years while at Notre Dame after switching from linebacker. Don't be surprised if he ends up becoming a combine superstar. He is nicknamed ‘Hercules’ for a reason, after all. The other early departure is running back/kick returner George Atkinson III, who was probably the fastest player on the team during his time at Notre Dame. Seniors to consider are receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Bennett Jackson, left guard Chris Watt, linebackers Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox and quarterback Tommy Rees as well.

Season wrap: Notre Dame

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly referred to the Fighting Irish's 2013 campaign as a good season that could have been a great one. Tough to argue, considering some of the notable wins (Michigan State, Arizona State and USC) and head-scratching losses (Michigan and Pitt).

Still, a 9-4 record with a bowl win accounts for the program's second-best mark under Kelly in his four years there. And tough as it may be to swallow at the moment, losing both coordinators to head-coaching jobs is a strong endorsement of the direction Notre Dame's program is headed. Many outsiders wrote the Irish off the minute Everett Golson's suspension was announced in 2013, but they withstood a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball and found some young contributors who should be better-prepared for bigger roles this fall.

Offensive MVP: WR TJ Jones. Kelly said the vote wasn't even close when he polled the players on the team MVP award. Jones -- son of the late Andre Jones, an end on the Irish's previous national title team (1988) -- did everything his team asked of him and then some, playing through multiple injuries and delivering a standout senior campaign. He finished with 70 catches for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns, adding nine carries for 67 yards and two more scores. He also volunteered to return punts, a spot the Irish had sorely been lacking at in the Kelly era, giving them a legitimate threat back there with his 106 yards on 14 returns.

Defensive MVP: LB Dan Fox. The senior moved from the Will to the Mike early in the season to help fill the void in the middle left by Manti Te'o. When Jarrett Grace passed him on the depth chart, and then suffered a season-ending knee injury Oct. 5 against ASU, Fox answered the bell the way an upperclassman is expected to: by playing the best ball of his career. He had eight or more tackles a game during a five-game stretch to end the regular season, including 15 at Stanford, and he finished the season with a team-best 95, to go with 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 picks (1 a pick-six) and a fumble recovery.

Best moment: It didn't feel like it at the time, but in retrospect, Notre Dame's 17-13 win over eventual Rose Bowl champion Michigan State on Sept. 21 is easily the highlight of the Irish's season. It was an ugly game, to be sure, with the game ball going to a specialist (Kyle Brindza) who had a punt blocked and missed a field goal, and questionable calls coming from Spartans coach Mark Dantonio (a halfback pass with a freshman while tied in the second half?) and the officials (the Irish were on the receiving end of a number of debatable pass interference calls). Still, it was a well-earned win that may have ended up befuddling the national title picture, and there's no apologizing for that if you're the Irish.

Worst moment: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt is inexcusable, no matter how strong the Panthers ended up playing down the stretch (and no matter how strong they always end up playing the Irish). Losing Stephon Tuitt to a highly questionable targeting call did not help matters, but Notre Dame simply gave away a late-season game it had no business giving away, blowing a second-half lead and throwing a pair of costly fourth-quarter picks to Ray Vinopal that ended up prematurely crushing BCS-bowl hopes.

Irish's lunch links

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
12:00
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Not a bad Wednesday of college football.


Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.

Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.

Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).

Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)

What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.

What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.

To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.

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ESPN 300 athlete Porter Gustin (Salem, Utah/Salem Hills) took time out to talk recruiting and more with WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz on Tuesday at The Opening.
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