Alizé Jones redefining and refining role at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That his long-term future is suddenly out of focus not only doesn’t worry Alizé Jones, it actually inspires the Notre Dame sophomore.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Las Vegas product first arrived at ND looking to add to the school’s rich tight end lineage. But a spring experiment that gave him extensive reps as a wide receiver have both him and the Irish coaching staff trying to redefine the best way to use him.

It’s one of a handful of more-delicious-than-daunting dilemmas Irish head coach Brian Kelly needs to put a fine point on between now and ND’s 2016 opener, Sept. 4 at Texas.

“He’s a guy we’ve got to try to find a role for,” said Kelly, whose team wrapped up spring drills Saturday with the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. “He can’t be a guy who’s in a rotation as the third tight end on the field. That’s pretty clear.”

Playing largely that kind of role Saturday, Jones collected three catches for 27 yards and did a lot of inline blocking for the winning Blue team in a 17-7 verdict.

Sort of the opposite of what his spring looked like behind closed doors.

There, he was primarily matched up against cornerbacks, rather than safeties and linebackers. He refined how he ran deep routes and ran them more often. He became comfortable with the more confined spaces in which ND’s “W” receiver typically operates.

Think Chris Brown/Corey Robinson in 2015. That’s the “W” in ND’s offense, the outside receiver who lines up on the short side of the field.

“Man, I really like the ‘W’,” Jones said

How much?

“I really, really, really like that,” he said. “I’m still learning it, though. It’s different out there. You have to be able to get off press coverage. You have to really be a great route runner out there. The coaches want to be able to look at me and feel confident they can put me out there in any situation.”

Pressed to project what that turns into in the fall, Jones’ educated guess is that he’ll be a hybrid player — tight end on some downs, wide receiver on others.

“But I’m going to leave it up to the coaches,” he said with a smile.

There’s considerable talent at both positions with which Jones is involved.

Senior Durham Smythe is ND’s most complete tight end, running and blocking, and junior Nic Weishar is steadily evolving that way. It was former defensive lineman Jacob Matuska’s surprisingly smooth conversion, though, that made the spring tinkering with Jones possible.

At the W, sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown emerged from spring as a potential starter, with classmate Miles Boykin also showing some impressive flashes. June arrivals Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley could also push for a serious look there.

Robinson would be in the mix there as well, should he plunge back into football after suffering multiple concussions, including one that kept him out of almost the entire run of 15 spring practices.

Robinson’s decision, after he and his family consulted with a head injury specialist last week, is expected to come sooner than later.

Jones is the most physical option at the boundary wide receiver. His May and June agenda starts with getting with ND’s other receivers and having them tutor him on the moves and mentality to beat press coverage.

“I feel like once I can beat the cornerback off the line, then I’ve got him,” he said.

Less straightforward for Jones is whether to add weight, lose it or stay in the 240 neighborhood.

“What I do know is I don’t want to get so big where I lose my athleticism,” he said. “That’s something that I think has been a true blessing for me thus far and throughout my entire time playing football is just being able to run, being able to be a mismatch and my athleticism.”

Jones was able to work that athleticism intermittently for 13 catches for 190 yards as a freshman, best among ND’s tight ends in 2015. Collectively, though, the mix-and-match lineup of Jones, Weishar, Tyler Luatua, Chase Hounshell and the small doses of Smythe produced a modest 20 receptions from ND’s signature position.

That’s the lowest total for the tight end group since the Irish amassed eight in 2001, Bob Davie’s final season as head coach.

Smythe missed most of the season with knee and shoulder injuries but is back to 100 percent. Luatua (BYU) and Hounshell (Ohio State) have moved on.

“Beyond adjusting to the speed of the game, understanding the offense has been the biggest help in helping me improve at this level,” Jones said. “I haven’t perfected my craft. There are still a lot of things I need to work on. And I’m working on them.”

The adjustment to the bright lights wasn’t necessarily one of them. The media attention and national profile of Jones’ high school, Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, mitigated the culture shock at ND. So did having a fan base that included rappers Snoop Dogg and Flavor Flav, and boxing great Muhammad Ali.

Snoop’s son, wide receiver Cordell Broadus, and Ali’s grandson, running back Biaggio Ali-Walsh, are former teammates of Jones. Flav is a neighbor of Ali-Walsh.

“The one thing that took some getting used to here was the 80,000 people in the stands,” Jones said. “We were on TV a lot at Gorman, but we didn’t have those kind of crowds.

“Being a long way from Vegas, though, wasn’t hard at all. When I first got here, it was different. But at the same time, coming to Notre Dame, you really feel like you’re at home, because the coaches welcome you in. The team welcomes you in and just the school.

“So when you come here, you’re a part of a brotherhood, you’re a part of a family. So this is home to me now. When I go home and come back here, it’s, ‘Wow, feels good to be back.’ I really love it here.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Alizé Jones makes a catch during the Notre Dame football practice in Notre Dame Stadium Friday, April 15, 2016. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA