ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- TJ Jones took off down the right side of the field. For the first time during Detroit Lions minicamp and one of the first times since he was a college receiver, Jones was running down the field to catch a pass.
Mohammed Seisay was there, too, defending him stride for stride. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky let the pass go. Jones kept running, extended his arms at the right time, caught the pass in stride for what would have been a touchdown had it been a game that counted instead of a minicamp practice.
For Jones, who missed all of last season after shoulder surgery turned into a nerve injury, it was a big moment. It wrapped up what appeared to be the best practice Jones has had in his brief Detroit Lions career and another step for him coming back from an injury that made it difficult for him to catch for an entire season.
Jones said he doesn’t think like he’s back to his college-level self yet -- but then again, he's not trying to simply return to that level, either.
"I'm trying to get better than my old self," Jones said. "It did feel, I'm starting to get comfortable in my own skin again, coming back from injury, you kind of have to teach yourself to play football again, so it's good to start to get some sense of normalcy back and not feeling so awkward."
The awkwardness appeared often during his first few days and weeks back from the injury. Catching didn't feel normal for months. He had to remember how to run routes and how to catch. At first, he had days where he felt like he bombed everything and had to begin all over again.
Those days come less often now, and he's developed a routine of trying to focus on one thing one day to improve on. Wednesday, for instance, was for working on contested catches. He made at least three of them, including the long touchdown pass in stride.
His daily routine isn't necessarily set in stone, although conversations in the wide receiver meeting room dictate some of his decisions. Other times, it evolves during practice based off a mistake he'll make or something he notices as practice reps go by.
This has to be Jones' process at this point. He hasn't played football in pads since wrapping up a career at Notre Dame, where he made 181 catches for 2,429 yards with 19 touchdowns. He is in the middle of a receiver competition that is wide open after starters Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate while making up for a season lost, time lost, and experience lost while trying to earn a roster spot.
He's better than he was a few months ago, when he still thought about what it felt like to catch a ball without pain or numbness. When Jones still wondered when he’d get back on the field instead of actually being able to be part of a receiver rotation.
When thinking about his hand became something he no longer did.
"I made up my mind that if I could practice and I'm cleared to practice, I'm not going to use it as a crutch," Jones said. "So I can't go out there thinking that 'Oh, my hand doesn’t feel right today so if I drop a ball, it’s OK.'”
Instead, he's trying to practice like he would have before -- even as he's trying to make sure he’s better than he ever was.