Time for Notre Dame TE Alizé Jones to shine could be soon
The praise from his teammates and coaches has already been heaped onto Alizé Jones. Yet the passes from quarterback DeShone Kizer have infrequently found Notre Dame’s freshman tight end.
But in the biggest drive of Notre Dame’s 24-20 victory over Temple last Saturday, Jones made his mark. With 3:19 left in the game and the Irish trailing by three points, Jones caught a 45-yard pass that propelled a drive with promise onto the doorstep of the end zone. Two plays later, Kizer found Will Fuller for the game-winning touchdown.
The fact that Jones was on the field for the crucial drive shows a growing confidence in him from Notre Dame’s coaching staff. In the same way that his catch gave the Irish much-needed momentum, it could be the turning point in a burgeoning finish to the season for Jones.
“It’s big,” Jones said. “It just shows that the coaches trust me. They have a little bit of trust in me to go out there and be able to make plays when I need to. For coach (Brian) Kelly to put me out there and the rest of the coaches to put me out there in a critical situation like that is big and it says a lot."
The play itself — the longest of his 10 career catches in eight games — didn’t require anything extraordinary from the 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end. His corner route from the slot position worked perfectly to split the zone between the outside cornerback and the inside safety.
All Jones had to do was his job to execute the play. Some nerves came along with the moment.
“I saw how the safeties were playing, so my eyes got big and I got real jittery,” Jones said. “I said, 'Alright, man. This is a big opportunity to make a big play. You have to come through for your team.'"
The strength and athleticism Jones has been praised for kicked in when he fought off Temple safety Nate L. Smith for an extra 13 yards before being forced out of bounds. The question has rarely been about Jones’ physical ability. He’s been eased into playing time as the Irish coaching staff has split the reps between four different tight ends based on comfort and skill set.
“It's just getting more familiar with the offense and understanding his place within the offense, routes, protections, run game,” Kelly said of Jones. “It's just a freshman that we know has got really, really a great skill set, but sometimes it just takes a little while.
“He's got great hands. He's got great athletic ability. He's going to be a really, really fine football player for a number of years here, and he's starting to feel more comfortable and gaining more confidence every day.”
Kizer called Jones “one of the fastest, most athletic tight ends in the country.” Fuller said Jones has the best hands on the team.
But Jones admits the biggest deficiency in his game comes as a blocker.
“Throughout high school and right now, I'm doing a lot of playing in the slot at receiver,” Jones said. “I'm a pass threat. I don't have a problem with it, but at the same time I came here to be an all-around guy. I just want to get better."
Jones has tried to learn from sophomore Tyler Luatua and fifth-year senior Chase Hounshell, the two tight ends Notre Dame has relied on the most to block this season. He’s even asked left tackle Ronnie Stanley — both attended Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas — for pointers.
Improved performance in blocking could allow Notre Dame to feature Jones in the red zone, and the Irish could certainly use someone to step up near the goal line. Notre Dame has scored only 26 times in 33 red zone trips, which slates the Irish at No. 99 in the FBS behind the likes of South Alabama, Texas and Southern Mississippi.
Notre Dame’s answer to better execution in the red zone won’t be a one-man job, but the emergence of Jones would be welcomed.
“A big body guy like that is going to certainly help you down there,” Kelly said. “There's no question about that. But I don't know if it's one guy that changes it as much as we just have to be better as an overall unit, and we just made too many mistakes down there.”
Jones can see the opportunity in front of him. The jitters will have to fade. He needs to produce on the practice field. Then the ball will find him more on Saturdays. He's still waiting for his first touchdown.
"Throughout the week of practice, we have to make those plays,” Jones said. “If we're not making plays down there in the red zone — because we have different situations that coach Kelly puts us in. So if we're not making plays, then you can't have the coaches trust you. We have to continue to work hard and when our opportunity comes, make the most of it."