Ismail affects draft prospect T.J. Jones

Sometimes our past connects with our present when we least suspect. That happened to me last week while researching an NFL draft story on Notre Dame wide receiver T.J. Jones, a middle-rounds prospect who is the godchild of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Raghib Ismail.

I covered the Panthers when Ismail came into his own in 1998. The way Jones paused to think before answering each question, the depth with which he answered, reminded me of the player known by most as "Rocket."

The two are connected on a much deeper level. When Jones' father died of a brain aneurysm in 2011 at 42, in stepped Ismail, who lost his father to cardiac arrest at the age of 10.

Ismail shared the mistakes he made trying to be the man of the house as a boy. That helped shape Jones into both the mature man he has become and a player Ismail believes will be a steal for whoever gets him.

"Anybody who is being considered for an NFL job has talent and ability," said Ismail, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1990. "But the thing that separates those that are able to really excel and those that are able to walk through that process at the mediocre level is what's in your heart.

"T.J. has that. I know how difficult it was for him in the process of his father dying, the process of experiences at Notre Dame. That would have led a lesser young man to go in a different direction."

That brings us to the draft. Let's say you're an NFL team looking for a bargain at wide receiver, as the Panthers are. Not a bargain just in terms of what he can do on the field but in what he brings to the team off the field in terms of maturity and character.

Let's throw in that he has a great pedigree, as well, in that his father, Andre, and uncle Phillip Daniels were former NFL players.

Jones could be the guy. The former Gainesville (Ga.) High standout could be a nice fit for a lot of teams, whether it's the Panthers or NFC South rival Atlanta.

"Football is literally in my blood," said Jones, who lives in Atlanta with his mother. "A lot of people ask 'Why football?' when you're leaving Notre Dame with your degree. 'Why not?' is the question I ask them."

Jones is not as dynamic as Clemson's Sammy Watkins, expected to be the first or second receiver taken. At 6 feet and 188 pounds, Jones is not as big of a target as Texas A&M's Mike Evans (6-4, 231).

But when you get to the fourth and fifth rounds, Jones stacks up pretty well.

Ismail says Jones is further along at this point in his career than he was in 1991, when he opted to play for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League instead of going straight to the NFL.

He would love to see Jones go to a team like Carolina with a wide receivers coach, Ricky Proehl, who teaches the fundamentals of running routes that Ismail finally got from Richard Williamson when he joined the Panthers in 1996.

"T.J. has that now," said Ismail, who befriended Jones' father while being recruited by Notre Dame. "With Ricky Proehl … and with a mature Cam Newton, that could be a potent look."

Jones won't stun you with his speed like Ismail, who was clocked at 4.28 seconds in the 40 coming out of Notre Dame. Jones' 4.48 40 at the NFL scouting combine didn't turn a lot of heads.

But Jones did turn heads last season at Notre Dame with 70 catches for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns.

Ismail says Jones' ability to understand the playbook and what it takes to put in a game plan separates him from many receivers in the draft. But that's not what impresses him most.

"A defender is right there, his ability to go get the ball, from what I've seen, is unparalleled," Ismail said.

It's Jones' maturity that stood out most as he talked about his future. Much of that comes from his past. He learned the importance of being well-rounded from his father and Ismail.

"To be more than just a football player, to be a well-rounded person on and off the field because character and how people perceive you off the field matters just as much as you producing on the field," Jones said.

You can hear the maturity in Jones the way he broke down the difference between going to a team like Carolina, which is trying to replace its top four wide receivers, and a team like Atlanta that has proven veterans in Julio Jones and Roddy White.

"If you go to a team with a Julio Jones and Roddy White, you may not be the starter right away, but you're going to learn things from their experiences that may take you longer to learn on your own," Jones said.

"If you go to a team like the Panthers, who need people to come in and produce right away, then you have a chance to be that guy straight out of college. Everybody wants the opportunity to produce."

It took Ismail six NFL seasons to produce as a receiver. It happened in his third at Carolina, when he caught 69 passes after catching no more than 36 in a season before then.

He and Jones have talked about that, but mostly they talk about life and how their past connections have led to where they are in the present.