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POPE: TJ Jones key to ND’s effort to improve return game

Ricardo Allen TJ Jones

Ricardo Allen, TJ Jones

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:52AM



SOUTH BEND— Notre Dame’s punt return numbers weren’t very good in 2012.

The Irish had 46 yards on 21 returns. That’s 2.2 yards per return. The figure ranked 116th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Wide receiver TJ Jones is determined to do something about it.

“I think that it’s somewhere where our team needs improvement. A lot of improvement,” Jones said Thursday. “If you could flip the field, or even get 10 yards, that’s a first down. It’s somewhere where we just need plays to happen. We haven’t had it in the past and I’ve made myself determined to make it happen this year.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly announced last week that Jones would be returning punts for the Irish. He said a big factor in giving the senior captain the role was that he really wanted to do the job.

“I think you have to have that want and desire and belief that you can be really good at it,” Kelly said Tuesday.

Jones is already considered Notre Dame’s top weapon at wide receiver. Now he’s ready to aid in another area. And he should make the Irish better in that department.

“Now I’m able to mentally and as a person accept two roles,” Jones said. “While also getting better at receiver, perfecting punt return. Before I didn’t think I could do that. Coming into this spring, when I first started returning again, is when I felt I was comfortable enough to do that.”

Golden Tate led the Irish in punt return average in 2009, averaging 14.3 yards. The next year, John Goodman led the team with 1.3 yards per return. There isn’t a leader listed in Notre Dame’s media guide for 2011 (the minimum to qualify is 1 return per game). Last year, Davonte’ Neal averaged 2.2 yards per return.

Notre Dame did an extensive offseason study to look into the ways to improve its punt return.

“I’ll just give you one example. 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,” Kelly said.

“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.”

Having someone like Jones back there to return will be a bonus.

“That punt return team now knows they’ve got a guy back there who’s a senior captain that wants to do their job,” Kelly said. “There’s a big motivation factor for those guys to want to get that job done for him, as well.”

Special teams stood out as a point of emphasis in the spring. The Irish planned on utilizing some of their veterans on the units (George Atkinson III returns to handle the kickoff duties). Freshmen will also be in the mix.

“I think we like to get our freshmen in on special teams early on and get them acclimated, especially those guys that we plan on or have a vision towards playing,” Kelly said.

Kelly didn’t disclose which freshmen would be involved, but expect to see some contributing on special teams soon. Kelly said there’s a balance to getting both the veterans and the newcomers involved.

“I work at it hard. It’s not easy. We try to make certain, that if we’re going to play freshmen, I want to get them on the running teams. I want to get them out there, get them acclimated to the game situations because if they’re going to play I think it’s a great entry into playing on the field, as well as guys that we believe can impact those special teams without taking a position player and wearing him out,” Kelly said.

“So I think it’s a balance that myself and (special teams coordinator/tight ends coach) Scott Booker, we spend a lot of time talking about personnel and getting the right personnel on that team.”

The right personnel can make all the difference. In Jones, the Irish might have a guy to give the punt return game a big boost.



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