LOS ANGELES – When USC running backs coach Tommie Robinson arrived in the spring, he had some fun at the expense of sophomore running back Ronald Jones II.
Jones had just finished his true freshman season in which he led the Trojans with 987 yards rushing, but had also found it difficult to adjust to the blocking responsibilities that come with major college football.
“When I got here, I told him, “’You gotta block,’” Robinson said. “He’s like, ‘Uh, what?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to run a lead play and tell you to block.’ ‘Block a linebacker?’ ‘Yeah, he if blitzes you gotta block him, what’s the difference?”
Whether Jones is ever actually used as a lead blocker is beside the point. What matters is that for Jones to be trusted to play in any situation, it’s the intricacies of the position that matter. It’s obvious to anyone who has seen him carry the ball that he can be one of the most explosive rushers in the country, but USC will be asking for much more this year.
Even though the team is just four days into camp – and have yet to practice in full pads – the early returns indicate he’s on his way to catching teammate Justin Davis, who coach Clay Helton called a “very, very complete back.”
For Jones, Robinson’s arrival has made a significant impact.
“He’s unlike any coach I’ve ever had,” the Texas native said. “He’s strict. He’ll critique you on every little thing and make sure you do the job right. If you don’t, you won’t be on the field.
“It’s the small things. Like in pass protection, not to step up too far because the linemen are dropping back.”
Junior quarterback Max Browne said it’s easy to notice how far Jones has come.
“The biggest thing with pass protection is knowing fronts, knowing safety rotations. From a high school kid, it’s wide-eyed and it’s, ‘Shoot, I want to run,” Browne said. “Year 1 to Year 2, I know for a quarterback position it’s the same way, protections seem to slow down and things clear up for you.
“I’ll be sure to help him when he needs it, but I can tell he gets it. We do the protections walk through every morning and he’s doing a great job.”
Whoever wins the starting quarterback job, either Browne or redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, will have the benefit of one of the best backfields in the Pac-12. Jones appears well on his way to stardom and, at this point, isn’t considered the Trojans top back. That distinction goes to Davis, who quietly emerged late last season as USC’s go-to option.
“We’re in a good place right now with those guys,” Helton said. “I think when you’re running the ball … let’s say you have 80 plays and you’re a balanced offense, you’re handing the ball off at least 40 times a game. No back can carry it 40 times a game and make it through a season. There has to be multiple backs.”
USC’s first practice in full pads will be held Monday evening at the Coliseum.
“We can definitely run with more confidence [in pads],” Jones said. “We’ve been worried about getting banged up on our knees. I’ve been tip toeing a little bit.”