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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 6 Tony Jones, senior running back

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11, 227 pounds.
2019-20 year, eligibility: A senior, Jones has two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2019.
Depth chart: Earlier this week, this space definitively said junior Jafar Armstrong will start in Notre Dame’s backfield. Even with injuries aside, an argument could be made that statement should have been hedged. It is within fathoming Jones puts together a strong enough preseason to earn the starting honors on Labor Day. If he doesn’t, he will certainly get his share of carries, as Armstrong has not proven able to handle a bell cow’s workload.
Recruiting: Consider Jones a prime example of recruiting rankings not matching up with scholarship offers. The No. 21 running back in the class of 2016 and a three-star prospect, per rivals.com, the U.S. Army All-American chose the Irish over Oklahoma, Miami and Florida, even though he hails from the Sunshine State.

CAREER TO DATE
Looking at Jones’ career trajectory, its linear progression would point toward starting this year. He preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 before becoming the trusted, yet injury-prone, backup to Josh Adams for a season. A sprained ankle and a balky quad did not keep him out of many games (just one), but they very much limited Jones during the season.

He managed to play through similar injuries, particularly the ankle, last year while working as the No. 2 back to Dexter Williams. Rather than a step backward for Jones, this was rightfully viewed as Williams’ long-awaited chance to shine.

2017: 12 games; 44 carries for 232 yards, a 5.3 average gain per rush, and three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
2018: 13 games, three starts; 83 carries for 392 yards, a 4.7 average gain per rush, and three touchdowns. Six catches for 157 yards and a touchdown.

A few facts to remember regarding Jones, presented with equally-true counterpoints:
— He is the only player on Notre Dame’s roster with a 100-yard rushing game. Then again, Armstrong once gained 98 yards on eight carries, illustrating how arbitrary the triple-digit mark is in a deci-centric society.
— When Jones rushed for those 118 yards against Vanderbilt, he also caught two passes for 56 yards on identical wheel routes. In an injury-shortened season, Armstrong twice exceeded that yardage total through the air.
— Jones caught the touchdown pass at USC, a 51-yard checkdown to the flat, that sent the Irish to the College Football Playoff. Of course, he nearly dropped it when looking up field before completely securing the ball.

QUOTE(S)
Two things were repeated throughout spring practices about Jones: He is an all-purpose back, and he is a consistent back. Those may not be the most glamorous pieces of praise, but a known commodity presents value in its own way.

“We’re seeing a guy that is running with low pads, playing physical and it’s the same guy every day,” head coach Brian Kelly said in late March. “We (used to get) an A+ Tony one day and a C+ Tony (the next). We’re getting a consistent Tony every single day and that’s good for him that he’s made those adjustments to come out here and practice at a high level.”

Throughout the offseason, the coaching staff was reminded of what Jones can produce at his peak, because those moments filled the Notre Dame highlight reels. When you average 26.2 yards per reception, they are going to get noticed.

“You turn on our cut-ups, Tony Jones shows up as much as anybody,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said in early March. “Making plays out of the backfield catching the ball. His focus and his grind when he gets his mind right, which he does right now, he’s a really good football player.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Somehow, the veritable range of results for Jones’ year do not feel inherently tied to Notre Dame’s overall success. Yes, if he runs for 1,200 yards and a dozen touchdowns, that will certainly bode well for the season as a whole, but if he ends up with 300 yards and five scores, it would not necessarily mean the Irish ground game has stalled outright.

“The combination of those minor injuries so greatly limiting him and the possibility of an all-or-nothing season from Williams makes it difficult to project Jones’ production. When healthy, his aptitude in pass catching, pass blocking and run blocking opens up an entire chapter in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook. There are few things Long would love more than to routinely deploy a two-back set with Jones and Williams, then getting Jones in front of the faster Williams to lay a few blocks. The next play, as the defense wants to adjust to a bigger package to account for that threat, Jones could motion wide and stretch a linebacker into space, creating another mismatch.

“But Williams might not be available for the whole season and that package only works at all if Jones can play through the varied bumps and bruises he will collect. Perhaps that ‘coat of armor’ is as stout as Kelly suggested and Jones will do just fine even without a veteran backfield companion. If Williams is sidelined, Jones would be needed to take every competitive carry until a newcomer to the position proves ready. That is the not-quite-preferred scenario in which Jones averages 100 yards per game this year, as unlikely as that may seem.

“Having nailed his statistical projection a year ago, let’s double down: As the primary back, Jones falls short of 1,000 yards but does eclipse triple digits multiple times, scoring a half dozen or so touchdowns on the ground. This includes some expectation of health, a risky leap of faith to take for a back readying for a bigger role when he has not stayed active with a smaller one previously.”

Despite never handling a leading role for Notre Dame, senior running back Tony Jones’ physical style has yielded seven touchdowns over the last two seasons. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2019 OUTLOOK
That set of facts earlier was intended to shed some shade on Armstrong’s supposedly-certain starter status. Both backs bring diverse skill sets to the position, and the Irish ideal may be to evenly split opportunities. With two backs well-versed in pass-catching, that could work as long as both are healthy.

In admittedly-limited sample sizes, Jones has proven to be the more durable of the two. If Armstrong goes down, Jones will become a Notre Dame workhorse, the trio of backs behind him merely providing relief.

These divergent possibilities make a statistical projection difficult, but it is safe to presume Jones will exceed his numbers from last season. Clearing 600 total yards is nothing to scoff at, especially if it comes amidst a breakout season from Armstrong, as the optimistic anticipate.

DOWN THE ROAD
This is where a broad range of possibilities extends to a comical extent. All five Irish backs will have remaining eligibility in 2020, and heralded-recruit Chris Tyree will join the fray. Perhaps Jones sees a smaller role in his fifth-year and instead follows the attempted path of Tarean Folston and declares for the NFL despite his remaining eligibility.

Perhaps “clearing 600 total yards” is actually more to the tune of 800 while Armstrong nonetheless breaks out. The latter could head to the NFL and Jones could see a role as the lead back in 2020 and return.

Or it could mean 650 yards while Armstrong returns for another year at the top of the depth chart. Jones might parlay his modest success into a graduate transfer at a mid-major needing a durable back for a season.

Every single one of these is in play, and reasonably so.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
Introduction
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Isaiah Foskey, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90: Hunter Spears, defensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver
No. 85: George Takacs, tight end
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right guard, three-year starter
No. 77: Quinn Carroll, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive guard
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive lineman
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, left tackle, two-year starter
No. 73: Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, three-year starter
No. 71: John Olmstead, offensive lineman, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 69: Aaron Banks, left guard
No. 60: Cole Mabry, offensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, veteran backup offensive lineman
No. 57: Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle
No. 56: John Dirksen, offensive lineman
No. 56: Howard Cross, incoming freshman defensive lineman, consensus four-star
No. 55: Jarrett Patterson, starting center
No. 55: Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle returning from injury
No. 54: Jacob Lacey, consensus four-star defensive tackle, early enrollee
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end
No. 52: Zeke Correll, consensus four-star center, early enrollee
No. 52: Bo Bauer, linebacker, sophomore
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, junior defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, senior inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, senior defensive end
No. 42: Julian Okwara, senior defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, junior defensive tackle
No. 40: Drew White, junior inside linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, junior kicker
No. 35: TaRiq Bracy, sophomore cornerback
No. 35: Marist Liufau, Hawaiian freshman linebacker
No. 34: Jahmir Smith, sophomore running back
No. 34: Osita Ekwonu, inside linebacker, consensus four-star
No. 33: Shayne Simon, sophomore linebacker
No. 31: Jack Lamb, sophomore linebacker
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, junior linebacker
No. 29: Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 27: J.D. Bertrand, consensus four-star linebacker
No. 25: Braden Lenzy, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 24: Tommy Tremble, sophomore tight end
No. 24: Jack Kiser, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Mr. Indiana Football
No. 23: Litchfield Ajavon, four-star safety, freshman
No. 23: Kyren Williams, early-enrolled freshman running back
No. 22: Kendall Abdur-Rahman, quarterback-turned-receiver, freshman
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, the only returning starting linebacker
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, three-year starting safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, defensive back returning from yet another injury
No. 20: C’Bo Flemister, sophomore running back
No. 19: Jay Bramblett, freshman punter
No. 19: Justin Ademilola, sophomore defensive end
No. 18: Joe Wilkins, sophomore receiver
No. 18: Nana Osafo-Mensah, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, junior receiver
No. 16: K.J. Wallace, freshman defensive back, three-star
No. 15 Isaiah Rutherford, freshman defensive back, consensus four-star
No. 15: Phil Jurkovec, sophomore quarterback
No. 14: Kyle Hamilton, freshman safety, consensus four-star
No. 13: Lawrence Keys, sophomore receiver
No. 13: Paul Moala, sophomore safety-turned-linebacker
No. 12: DJ Brown, sophomore cornerback-turned-safety
No. 12: Ian Book, starting quarterback
No. 11: Alohi Gilman, senior safety
No. 10: Chris Finke, fifth-year receiver, second-year starter
No. 9: Cam Hart, freshman receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, senior defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, senior cornerback
No. 8: Jafar Armstrong, starting running back, junior
No. 7: Brendon Clark, freshman quarterback
No. 7: Derrik Allen, sophomore safety