TJ Jones may be quite a catch for Detroit Lions

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

Closer to Mr. Irrelevant than where he dreamed he’d be drafted, former Notre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones caused a stir Saturday when the Detroit Lions made him the 189th player selected in 256-player NFL Draft.

In a good way.

“TJ Jones is a very intriguing prospect,” ESPN draft analyst and former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian said. “Had they (Notre Dame) had a more stable quarterback situation, I think (Jones) would have gone a lot higher in the draft.”

“One of the most reliable pass-catchers in this class,” ESPN’s Todd McShay offered.

Yet the 2013 Irish football MVP and No. 2 place-holder on the school’s career receptions list was the eighth and final Notre Dame player selected during the three-day, seven-round process that was adorned with all kinds of historical footnotes for the Irish program.

With outside linebacker Prince Shembo (fourth-round to Atlanta), cornerback Bennett Jackson (sixth round to the New York Giants) and Jones (sixth round, two picks later) added to the five ND players selected on days 1 and 2, Notre Dame tied Alabama for the second-most players chosen in the 79th-annual draft. LSU (9) had the most.

The eight-player draft haul was the largest for ND since the 1994 draft class produced 10 draftees. It’s the second-most ND players picked in the first six rounds of the draft since the draft’s inception in 1936, tied with the 1955 class and just one behind the 1994 group.

Combined with the six players drafted last year, the 14 represent the most draftees over a two-year stretch produced by Notre Dame since 15 players were selected in the 1994-95 drafts.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com said of the big draft-day numbers the past two cycles. “Notre Dame has had a little bit of a resurgence on the field, and we’re seeing guys get drafted and get invited to the (NFL) Combine again. The key now is to keep that rolling.

“The success of having all these guys drafted, that should help them get the next batch of guys to carry that on. That’s the whole key. A lot of schools can do this for one year. It’s the big-time programs that do it year in, year out, like Alabama does.

“No question it’s going to help them recruit. The ball is kind of rolling downhill to a certain degree now. The key now is to take advantage of it.”

The Irish closed the gap significantly with rival USC between No. 1 and No. 2 on the all-time draftee list. The Trojans, with three players taken in three days, now lead 487 to 485.

The 6-foot, 188-pound Jones, meanwhile. landed with the team his late father, Andre, played for in 1992. The elder Jones, a member of the 1988 Irish national championship team, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers a year earlier.

The defensive standout, who died three years ago at age 42 of a brain aneurysm, also played with Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League.

TJ’s draft stock didn’t dip was much as it was smothered by perhaps the deepest wide receiver crop in recent memory. Thirty-three wideouts were taken during the seven rounds.

“I think he was an underrated player,” Wright said. “In fact, he was on may all-underrated team. Wide receiver was the deepest position in this draft. We had 19 underclassmen come out at that position alone. Something was going to have to give. I think in a normal year, he would have at least gone a round or two earlier.”

In Detroit, Jones will join former teammate Theo Riddick, a running back and a Lions’ sixth-round selection last season, and former Irish receiver Golden Tate, No. 5 on ND’s career receptions list and who signed as a free agent with Detroit this offseason after helping Seattle to a Super Bowl victory in February.

In Atlanta, Shembo also will be greeted by a familiar face in safety Zeke Motta, a seventh-rounder last season. He was the second-to-last pick of round four, No. 139 overall.

The first question to confront Shembo in a conference call with Falcons media members addressed his late February admission that he was the Notre Dame football player accused in 2010 of sexual assault of a Saint Mary’s College student.

Shembo was not publicly identified by the media at the time of the alleged crime, because he was never charged. He maintains his innocence. Lizzy Seeberg had alleged the attack took place Aug. 31, 2010, in Shembo’s dorm room. She reportedly committed suicide 10 days later on Sept. 10.

“It was an unfortunate event,” Shembo said Saturday. “My name was pretty much cleared, and it’s behind me now, and I want to focus on playing football for the Falcons.

“All I can say is, I met with all the Falcons guys and I told them exactly what happened. I had a great time talking to them, and they were able to see me. Now I’m just ready to play for them.”

The Falcons’ brass echoed those sentiments and said their research of Shembo’s character was thorough.

Jackson, pick No. 187 overall, made a great first impression on the Giants’ media — and fans.

“I never had a specifically favorite team, but I always liked the Giants and hated the Jets,” said Jackson, who grew up 40 miles from MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home of both of New York’s NFL teams. “I mean, I guess it worked out in my favor.”

Jackson was courted by several teams as a safety, but the Giants plan to use him at his college position — cornerback.

The draft began with 15 Notre Dame players hoping to at least find a back door into an NFL training camp. Five of the seven undrafted Irish hopefuls had agreed to terms with teams as priority free agents within two hours of the draft concluding.

Linebacker Dan Fox will join Jackson with the Giants. Fellow linebacker Carlo Calabrese was picked up by the Browns. Quarterback Tommy Rees landed with Washington, while defensive lineman Kona Schwenke heads to Kansas City and running back/kick returner George Atkinson III to Oakland — his father’s former team.

Atkinson was one of four Notre Dame players and 102 throughout college football who left at least a season of eligibility on the table. Per Andrew Gribble of AL.com, 38 of the record 102 early entrees went undrafted.

Former Irish backup kicker Nick Tausch continues to search for an opportunity. Wide receiver and South Bend Clay High product Daniel Smith, who was unable to work out for any teams while recovering from breaks in both his tibia and fibula in his lower left leg Oct. 5 in a game against Arizona State, is more inclined to make a run at pro football next year.

Two former Irish were plucked Saturday during the late rounds of the draft. Wide receiver Shaq Evans, who finished his career at UCLA, was a fourth-round selection of the New York Jets (115th overall). Defensive end Aaron Lynch, a freshman All-American in 2011 at ND, went in the fifth round to San Francisco (150th overall). He played a season at South Florida after sitting out 2012 to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements.

Offensive tackle Zack Martin was the first Irish player off the board, going to Dallas Thursday night with the 16th pick of the first round. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (Pittsburgh) and tight end Troy Niklas (Arizona) followed Friday night in round 2. Nose guard Louis Nix (Houston) and Chris Watt (San Diego) were also selected Friday night but in the third round.

Nix’s fall into the third round, after being projected as a first-rounder for much of the pre-draft process, shocked some draft analysts.

“You hear different factors, but the biggest thing was his position,” Wright said. “He’s probably only a fit for 3-4 teams. So right off the bat, you’re eliminating half the teams from contention. Then from the half that are left, how may of those have a glaring need a nose tackle? It’s few and far between.

“Even though I’m sure he’s disappointed, it’s a pretty good situation for him in Houston. You get to go play with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. You get coached by (defensive coordinator) Romeo Crennel. And it’s a perfect fit there. He can come in and be the starter right now. You plug him in. It’s not like they had someone else he’d have to come in and fight with.”

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
Notre Dame outside linebacker Prince Shembo (55) was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons Saturday late in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. (SBT Photo James Brosher)