SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame wide receiver T.J. Jones has plenty on his mind as he prepares for the talented Alabama secondary he’ll face in the BCS championship game Jan. 7 in Miami.
Still, he can’t help thinking about his late father, Andre, who died in June 2011 at age 42 after suffering a brain aneurysm. The elder Jones played on Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team, and T.J. grew up hearing stories about his dad’s coach, Lou Holtz. His godfather is Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, the team’s star receiver and kick returner, and he stays in touch with many of his father’s Fighting Irish teammates.
T.J. keeps his dad’s championship ring at home because his mother is afraid he would lose it at school. He hopes to place his own right next to it.
“Before I came here, we used to always talk about how cool it would be if we both won the national championship, especially if we won it at Notre Dame, once I committed here in high school,” Jones said. “So I definitely have a more personal tie-in with what it means than somebody else might.”
Jones isn’t the only Irish player following in his father’s footsteps. He’s also one of several members of the nation’s top-ranked team who have overcome obstacles and setbacks to make it to college football’s biggest stage.
Last year, Mike Golic Jr., whose father was a star defensive tackle for the Irish in the early 1980s and currently co-hosts a morning talk show on ESPN, had been unable to win a starting job on the offensive line. As a graduate student this season, his hard work and determination changed that.
Golic said there were times when he struggled to go on, but his dad was always there with encouragement and advice.
“‘You have to stay sharp’,” he said his father told him. “‘You have to stay ready’. If I wasn’t ready when my number was called, then I’m letting everyone else down as well as myself. Staying ready and being accountable for what I was responsible for in my role on the team at that point, was his message to me.”
Golic said he appreciates how tough it will be to protect quarterback Everett Golson from Alabama’s swarming pass rush, but he’s confident.
“They’re big, strong, talented college football players,” Golic said. “Fortunately for us, we go against big, strong, talented guys every day in practice, on our defense. Our defense is built very similar to theirs – a lot of very talented guys, big bodies, who play a very similar scheme and similar techniques. It’s been really a tremendous tool for us. … It’s going to really help us a lot.”
Freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back and came to Notre Dame with dreams of scoring touchdowns. Instead, coach Brian Kelly moved him to defense before fall camp started.
“Of course I always think about what it would be like if I played running back,” Russell said. “But it would have been tough to have a big impact coming in this year, with [running backs] Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick having such great seasons, and George Atkinson III. If Coach said I could play running back next year, I wouldn’t do it because I’ve come to enjoy corner a lot.”
The transition wasn’t exactly seamless. Russell had to learn a new position and completely shift how he prepares for the game. The touchdown pass he gave up during the season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, still sticks in his mind.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot better,” Russell said. “My confidence has increased from the first game, when I allowed that touchdown. I was beat down after that. But I’ve kept getting more experience throughout the year, learning the techniques of other players and the schemes of our defense.”
Russell said he embraces the challenge of guarding Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, also a freshman.
“He’s very strong, runs great routes, knows how to attack the ball,” Russell said.
“It’s going to be fun, me and him looking each other in the eye, freshman to freshman. I’m going to be looking him in the eye, every play, and letting him know I’m here.”
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