USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin can vividly recall his reaction to first watching highlights of Ronald Jones II running the ball in high school. At the time, Jones was considered an under-the-radar prospect. And for Martin, that just didn’t make sense.
“We saw him on film, and the first question I asked the other coaches in the room was, ‘Is there something wrong with this kid?’" Martin said in a recent phone interview. “Because I felt he was the best back in the country.”
Eventually, others agreed. In the final recruiting rankings, ESPN listed Jones as the No. 1 running back in the class of 2015, and Martin said USC was fortunate to be able to recruit a player of his caliber out of Texas.
“He reminded me of Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs. That type of skill set,” Martin said. “Just a guy who runs and it’s easy for him. It doesn’t look like he’s working hard and he’s running by everyone.”
That seemingly effortless style translated easily once Jones arrived in Los Angeles. He broke Charles White’s USC freshman rushing record with 987 yards in 2015, while becoming just the second true freshman to lead the team in rushing (joining LenDale White in 2003). Last season, he again led the Trojans with 1,082 yards.
Jones put up those numbers despite not serving as the full-time starter in either season. As a freshman, he was technically behind both Justin Davis and Tre Madden on the depth chart, and this past season he didn’t take over as the starter until Davis suffered an ankle injury in the seventh game of the season.
When Davis went down, however, Jones really took off. He rushed for 742 yards over the final six games of the regular season and USC closed with an eight-game winning streak. The strong finish earned USC an invitation to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, during which Jones donned a No. 4 jersey to honor the passing of former USC running back Joe McKnight.
Despite the impressive production, a common buzzword has followed Jones around: potential. As in: Yes, he’s good, but he's not quite there. Martin saw it on his high school film, and many others have seen flashes of it the past two years. Now that Davis is off to the NFL, Jones’ time to carry the load has come.
“I'm so proud of Ro-Jo," coach Clay Helton said prior to the Rose Bowl. "Everybody knows he's a great runner, but when you really look at where he is from day one when he started at USC to where he is now, he's become a better pass-catcher out of the back field, he's becoming a better third-down pass-protection guy. He's really becoming a more complete player and an every-down player.
“When he first came, he was a kid that you knew you could hand the ball to. Now he can go play 60, 70 plays in a game, and you know he can function and function extremely well.”
Since the season ended, Martin has seen even more reason to be optimistic. He praised Jones' work in the weight room and in the classroom and said he has turned into an example for other players for how to work to get better every day.
Earlier this month, running backs coach Tommie Robinson opted to leave USC to reunite with former USC interim and assistant coach Ed Orgeron at LSU. The Trojans are not quite ready to officially name Robinson's replacement, but Martin described that coach as a good teacher and said he'll make an announcement soon.
The mystery coach will inherit what Martin called one of the deepest position groups on the team. Rising junior Aca’Cedric Ware showed promise as the Trojans’ No. 3 back last season -- he had a pair of 100-yard games after Davis went down -- and Dominic Davis figures to see an increased role as a hybrid running back/receiver. The Trojans will also welcome two backs into the fold: Vavae Malepeai, who redshirted last year, and true freshman Stephen Carr, the No. 3-ranked running back in the class of 2017.
What’s clear is that those guys will be competing for carries behind Jones, who is poised to become one of college football’s best running backs. Assuming he stays healthy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he chases 1,500 rushing yards as opposing defenses will be forced to take into account that quarterback Sam Darnold might be the best player in the country. His presence alone should free up running lanes for Jones, who has the speed to go the distance on any given play.
“I haven’t seen him get run down yet,” Martin said. “No one has run him down from behind. … Unless a guy has a good angle on him, I don’t think anyone is going to catch him. It’s good to have a home run hitter who can do that.”