It wasn’t that Tony Jones needed a year to get ready for college football. He didn’t. That is not why he spent his freshman season preserving a year of eligibility on the sidelines. Rather, Notre Dame already had two proven options at running back as well as a third option in the speedy Dexter Williams.
“That was a conscious decision on our part not to play him [last year],” Irish coach Brian Kelly said, “more than he wasn’t necessarily ready to play.”
So Jones sat. Did he want to? Would anybody?
“At first, it was tough, but I talked to my family and stuff,” Jones said following the Blue-Gold Game. “… I just learned from [junior] Josh [Adams] and [former Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston] and Dex, learning from their mistakes and what they did good, taking advice from everybody, just learning how college is really like.”
His impatience was not as apparent to others, including the rising junior Williams.
“[Jones] definitely handled it well,” Williams said. “It gave him a chance to learn the system. Even though we’re in a new system now, he still picked up on the system just sitting out, and he had the chance to get bigger, faster, stronger. He handled everything pretty well.”
A bigger, faster and stronger Jones will likely chip away at some of Williams’ carries. In fact, he might even take some away from the established starter, Adams.When asked if Jones could fit into the running back rotation in the fall, Kelly said if is no longer a consideration whatsoever.
“Honestly, he’s in it,” Kelly said in early April. “He’s a guy that if at any time we wanted to call him a No. 1, we could call him a No. 1. He’s done all the things to build that trust with us in terms of protections, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s earned that through his work this spring.”
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Typically, pass protections and running routes will limit young running back’s opportunities. If an inexperienced back only excels at running the ball, anytime he enters the game, the defense will key on the ground game. If it happens to be a pass, apparently the would-be tacklers will have a clear path to the quarterback anyway.
With Jones, Kelly said that is not the case. Without playing a collegiate snap, pass protection is something Jones has down. How? Well, he has been protecting the passer longer than he has been rushing the ball.
“Growing up in little league and stuff, I played fullback,” Jones said. “I never ran one route then, I just stayed in and blocked.
“Thanks to my dad for that one. He was my coach who put me at fullback.”
But how does a fullback-turned-rusher excel so much at running routes that Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long calls the rising sophomore the “most natural” at receiver of the three backs? Shouldn’t the comparably-veteran Adams and Williams have the edge on their presumed backup?
Thank the surplus of Florida high school football talent for that. One of the perks of going to a high school football powerhouse such as IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) is sometimes upperclassmen talent forces young talent to find other positions. IMG already had a highly-touted running back when Jones was a freshman.
“I played slot like half the year, and then I moved to wideout, and then I came back to running back,” Jones said.
Assuredly, he enjoyed that positional shuffling more than he enjoyed spending 2016 on the sidelines, but perhaps not by much. Either way, both—and, for that matter, include his time at fullback in pee-wee ball here, as well—played parts in Jones now being on the precipice of a notable debut season.
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