SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The last time Tommy Rees was handed the keys to Notre Dame's offense, he had a pair of first-round weapons to work with. Michael Floyd caught 100 passes in 2011, while Tyler Eifert grabbed 63.
Floyd was a known quantity two years ago, while Eifert emerged as a junior as one of the best tight ends at the collegiate level. Perhaps a player makes that leap this fall and becomes a top target, someone who's in the conversation for postseason awards.
If that doesn't materialize, though, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly isn't concerned.
"He has a number of weapons," Kelly said. "He doesn't have an Eifert or a Floyd, but I think we're more balanced at that position than any time since we've been here at Notre Dame."
But then there's this wrinkle: Kelly thinks there is someone on his roster who can follow in the footsteps of Eifert and Floyd, both of whom were top picks in the 2012 and 2013 NFL Drafts, respectively.
"We do have a T.J. Jones, who I think is one of the best route-runners in the country. Wouldn't surprise me if he's a first‑round draft pick, he's that good," Kelly said.
Jones has upped his production in each of his three seasons in South Bend, going from 23 catches in 2010 to 38 in 2011 to 50 last fall. At 5-foot-11, he's the shortest scholarship wide receiver on the roster. He doesn't have blazing speed, either, but he's carved out a niche as a crisp, effective route-runner.
"I'm not going to be a 4.3 guy, a 6-3 receiver. But in my opinion, I will be the smartest receiver on the field," Jones said. "I'll be your guy that knows every position on the field, you could throw me wherever and I'm not going to miss a beat.
"And along with that, I take pride in my route-running. Not being the fastest, I have to have some advantage, something I could do better than others — in my opinion that's run routes, so that's where I spend a lot of my time."
Jones is the steady senior presence among Notre Dame's pass catchers, a group that's loaded with talent but short on experience.
Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels showed promise in 2012, and Chris Brown flashed game-breaking ability against Oklahoma. Tight end Troy Niklas has the size of an NFL tight end (6-foot-6, 270 pounds), while natural tight end Alex Welch is back after tearing his ACL last August.
For Kelly, that combination of players adds up to the fourth-year Irish coach being more excited about his pass catchers than he's been in the past.
"I would prefer wider distribution," Kelly said. "Tommy is capable of going across from sideline to sideline and distributing the football to where it needs to go."