For all the cyber-tears shed over the loss of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Zack Martin and Troy Niklas, few have brought up the fact that Notre Dame needs to replace its actual MVP.
So while the quartet of Irish standouts all fight to be taken in the NFL draft's first two rounds, Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock's biggest offensive objective this spring will be finding a way to replace TJ Jones' production.
Jones quietly put together one of the best seasons ever from a wide receiver at Notre Dame. After being a steady but less-than-spectacular performer for the Irish in his first three seasons, Jones' senior year was the type of breakthrough that Kelly had all but promised.
Tasked with returning punts, catching passes from the slot and outside and even taking handoffs, Jones' 70 catches for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns provided the Irish with an engine to drive the passing game.
|Great Recent Notre Dame Wide Receiver Seasons|
|Player||Year||Catches||Yards||TDs||YPC||% of Yards||% of Catches|
|Notre Dame Sports Information|
Just how good was Jones' final season in South Bend? While it's hard to view the Georgia native in the company of recent Irish greats like Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija, his year wasn't all that far off.
Jones' 15.8 yards per catch was just a fraction off of Tate's 16.1 yard average he put together in his Biletnikoff-winning season. It was better than Samardzija's two-year average over the 2005-06 seasons. Only during Floyd's injury-shortened 2008 season did the Irish's all-time leading receiver put up better per catch numbers than Jones' 2013.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Jones' senior season was just how essential he was to the offense. Jones was good for one-third of the team's receiving yards and touchdown passes. Only Floyd's 2011 season and Tate's 2009 season had receivers playing bigger individual roles in powering the passing offense.
While Floyd, Tate and Samardzija all had better touchdown numbers than Jones, only Floyd's 2011 season had a receiver make a higher percentage of the team's catches than Jones did this year.
All that shouldn't make Irish fans feel warm and fuzzy about replacing Jones. But a combination of talented personnel, a return to the spread offense that built Kelly's offensive reputation and elevated quarterback play should ease the loss of Jones next season.
If you're looking for one man to fill Jones' shoes, the most logical candidate to replace him isn't currently on campus. While DaVaris Daniels hasn't officially been readmitted to the university after grades forced him away for the semester, Daniels has the prototype talent needed to be a No. 1 receiver, even if he's only shown flashes of that in his two seasons on the field.
Daniels talked about some of the lingering injuries that hampered his production in 2013, with CBSSports.com revealing turf toe, plantar fasciitis and hip flexor issues.
Bumps and bruises plagued Jones throughout his career, but the undersized receiver (Jones weighed in at 188 pounds at the recent NFL combine) learned how to play through those as a senior.
Kelly often talks about veterans understanding how to play through issues that would've sidelined them earlier in their career. Seeing Jones postgame a number of times, that he answered the bell every game this season was a miracle.
Daniels' inconsistency on the field is really a product of growing up on the football field. Even with a fifth year of eligibility available, Daniels' junior season compares favorably to the year Jones had in 2012. So a big season certainly seems within the realm of possibility for him.
If there's a silver lining to Daniels' absence this spring, it's that other receivers get the chance to build chemistry with Everett Golson.
One of the primary beneficiaries of those extra reps is the sophomore now wearing Jones' number. Will Fuller only caught six passes last season, but his 26.7 yard average is an eye opener. He has the deep-threat ability that Jones only flashed briefly during his career, while having the chance to play multiple spots as the depth chart sorts itself out.
Of course, the likelihood of one player replacing Jones' production is slim. After all, Notre Dame used solid play from Niklas and Ben Koyack to fill the statistical hole Tyler Eifert left behind. Jones' versatility this season won't likely be duplicated by any one receiver. An early look at spring practice had players like Chris Brown and Corey Robinson take some additional snaps. While Daniels has the ability to be a player who fills the statistical void, spreading Jones' targets between Brown, Robinson and Fuller could soften the blow as well.
As the Irish transition back to Kelly's spread roots, the dependence on one key player to drive the offense will likely lessen. In 2011, the Irish forced the ball to Floyd because he was that much better than the next best receiver. In 2012, Chuck Martin beat into his quarterback's head that a single-covered Eifert was a receiver worth targeting.
The shift to up-tempo, spread principles will do more to share the wealth than anything else. When Kelly's offense works at its most optimal, the football has the chance to go in every direction, not solely to a key receiver.
While the offense's return to its roots helps, so does Golson.
Golson allows the Irish to operate the offense from outside the tackle box, putting pressure on defenses in a way that Tommy Rees physically couldn't. While statistically nobody truly flourished in 2012, Golson was a first-year quarterback learning on the fly and committed to playing mistake-free football.
While he lost a valuable year of development last season, his time with George Whitfield and commitment to learning the game will be essential as the Irish offense moves forward.
Some people scoffed when Kelly put Jones in the discussion for receivers who could tempt an NFL team early in the draft. But comparing his season to the great ones from his predecessors helps qualify what Kelly sees.
Losing a player who was a team captain, MVP and offensive engine is never easy. But the Irish are positioned as well as they can be to replace Jones in 2014.
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