Notre Dame football - MVP Jones looks to ND’s future

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Maybe it was as much about humility as it was prophecy.

After all, Notre Dame senior TJ Jones dashed from the “green room” at the DeBartolo Center of Performing Arts Friday night after smiling for his photo ops before the media could quiz him about being named the Irish football MVP for the 2013 season.

Once he was pulled back, he spoke about the future, or at least what it looks like through his lens — specifically freshman wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., who became a redshirt when a January leg injury lingered months longer than expected.

He too picked up an award — Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year — but much higher praise from Jones.

“I’ve seen glimpses of greatness,” Jones said after Echoes 2013, Notre Dame’s annual awards show and thank-fest. “He’s not even in my mind 100 percent yet from his leg injury. Once he gets his full strength back, once he gets his full speed training and through the summer, I think he’s going to be one of the greats to come through here.”

Jones, after some monumental obstacles off the field and uneven moments on it, can now be thrown into that category himself.

He heads into 25th-ranked Notre Dame’s Dec. 28 date with Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at New York’s Yankee Stadium as the seventh receiver in Irish history to crack the 1,000-yard mark in a single season. He has a team-leading 65 catches for 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season

At one point this season, he cobbled together a streak of seven straight games with at least one TD catch, which was one off the school record. He ranks third all-time on the school career lists for receptions (176), sixth in receiving yards (2,363) and sixth in TD catches (19).

“This year, a lot of things I’ve been able to do has exceeded my expectations from where I began my career here,” Jones said. “And I can’t be going out on a higher note.”

Jones lost his father, former Irish football standout Andre Jones, in June of 2011 between TJ’s freshman and sophomore seasons. The elder Jones died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 42.

Jones’ mother, Michele, spoke about Andre during a video presentation Friday night featuring most of the seniors’ parents.

“We used to say Andre has the best seat (at the games),” she said. “I would probably say Andre is crying .. when they said (TJ) was named captain.”

“She was talking high volume,” Jones said with a laugh. “But it was cool to see what my mom had to say behind the scenes. And I know she still thinks about my dad every day, like I do. It’s definitely a moment, even though I wasn’t there when she said, it, I was sharing it with her, because it was some of the similar thoughts that we have.”

Fifteen other players took home awards, with junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt garnering the most post-show attention from the media.

The 6-foot-6, 322-pound Monroe, Ga., product was named Lineman of the Year for the second straight season, and became the fourth Irish player ever to repeat.

But the subject du jour was about his upcoming decision regarding whether he’ll leave for the NFL Draft a year early. Tuitt, and any other underclassman, has until Jan. 15 to declare.

He said Friday night, he won’t even sit down with his mother, Tamara Bartlett, and two long-time mentors to discuss the decision until after the bowl game.

He also said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s departure to become the head coach at Connecticut wouldn’t factor into his decision, nor would who head coach Brian Kelly ultimately names to replace Diaco.

“I still, at the end of the day, would play to the best of my ability no matter who steps in,” Tuitt said.

Senior quarterback Tommy Rees was named Offensive Player of the Year, while outside linebacker Prince Shembo was named Defensive Player of the Year.

Rees needs 62 passing yards in the Pinstripe Bowl to become the third Irish QB ever to amass 3,000 passing yards in a season. He has 27 TD passes this season, third most in school history. His 61 career TD passes ranks second on ND’s list behind Brady Quinn’s 95. His record as a starter is 22-8.

Shembo, a senior from Charlotte, N.C., recorded 46 tackles and five sacks with a forced fumble and the most QB hurries (17) in a season since the year it became a consistently recorded stat – 2004.

Offensive guard Chris Watt and middle linebacker Dan Fox, a pair of fifth-year seniors, shared the Nick Pietrosante Award. Named after a former Irish running back who led the Irish in rushing in 1957 and ’58 and who died of cancer on Feb. 6, 1988, the Pietrosante Award is given to the players who exemplify courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride.

Watt’s streak of 47 straight games and 34 consecutive starts was snapped on Nov. 2, when a PCL tear suffered the week before knocked him out of a matchup with Pitt. Watt did return to the lineup intermittently, but an MCL injury to the same (right) knee eliminated his availability for ND’s upcoming bowl game.

Fox heads into the Pinstripe Bowl as ND’s leading tackler (90), despite losing his starting job midway through the season only to regain it when junior Jarrett Grace suffered a season-ending injury Oct. 5 against Arizona State.

Zack Martin won the Guardian of the Year award for the fourth straight season. Only one other player won the award more than once, and that was Ryan Harris, who won it twice.

Senior Kona Schwenke won the Next Man In award, filling in at nose guard for Louis Nix and defensive end Sheldon Day before needing a relief man himself after suffering a high ankle sprain against Navy on Nov. 2.

Freshman running back Tarean Folston beat out junior center Nick Martin and freshman Corey Robinson for Offensive Newcomer of the Year. Freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith won Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Freshman cornerback Cole Luke and junior middle linebacker Jarrett Grace were also nominated.

Other award winners were kicker/punter Kyle Brindza (Special Teams), wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. (Scout Team Offense), cornerback Joe Romano (Scout Team Defense), nose guard Tyler Stockton (Around The Bend – community service), linebacker Carlo Calabrese (Father Lange Iron Cross) and linebacker Jarrett Grace (Rockne Student-Athlete).

Notre Dame's TJ Jones celebrates a touchdown during the NCAA college football game between Notre Dame and Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN