Having showcased glimpses of his star potential throughout the first half of the Trojans’ schedule this fall, it became clear early on that it was just a matter of time until USC freshman tailback Ronald Jones II came through with a performance that forced everyone to stop and take real notice.
That time officially arrived last Saturday in the Trojans’ 38-30 victory over Arizona in the Coliseum.
The McKinney (Texas) North product put on an absolute show, surpassing LenDale White’s freshman rushing record as he ran wild on the Wildcats for 177 yards, averaging a gaudy 9.3 yards per carry.
Having grown up idolizing Reggie Bush, and pulling for a USC program known far and wide as ‘Tailback U,’ Jones is well aware of the significance of his accomplishment.
“It’s exciting,” Jones said. “I didn’t think I had it considering all the great backs. It feels cool to be in that category.”
For Jones, who has seen his role increase over the course of the Trojans’ current three-game winning streak, with the first-year back carrying the ball a career-high 19 times against Arizona, he appears poised to potentially take his place as the next great USC tailback.
“Everybody’s got a different timetable,” said USC interim head coach Clay Helton. “Some freshmen, the light comes on immediately. I go back and think of Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor – those guys that the light just came on. And the light is coming on right now for Ronald Jones.”
An explosive, relentless ball carrier, the 6-foot, 192-pound Jones most likens his style to that of current Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, with whom he also shares similarities in terms of their dreadlocked hair, Texas background, as well as their jersey No. 25.
Jones has also been spending extra time in the film room watching clips of Charles and other NFL tailbacks, adapting certain elements of their game to his own. That includes what he calls the ‘horse kick,’ which he utilized against the Wildcats to drive through at least two would-be tacklers on his way to a 74-yard touchdown.
“[Running Backs Coach Johnny Nansen] makes NFL cut-ups for us, so we just watch them and how they keep their legs going on contact,” said Jones, who leads the Trojans with 710 yards rushing this season. “I didn’t really have that element, but as I get stronger, and with more experience, I’m trying to do that.”
Putting that same tireless work ethic on display each day during practice, Jones has also made strides in two other key areas – pass protection and his receiving skills.
“We all knew he was a great runner, but I really like what he’s trying to do with the things that maybe were a little bit of a weakness when he first came in, from catching the ball to pass protection,” Helton said. “He’s really focusing on things that he wants to get better at rather than focus just on his strengths, which is running the ball.”
Jones’ improvement as a pass catcher was clearly evident in the second quarter of the Trojans’ victory over Arizona when he hauled in a pass in the flat and darted into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown.
“The guys can stop making fun of me because I finally got a receiving touchdown,” Jones said. “It feels good.”
With everything coming together for Jones, it stands to reason that not only will his role continue to grow, but so too will his numbers. And with Jones currently standing just 148 yards shy of Charles White’s freshman single-season mark of 858 rushing yards, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be entering the record books again, and probably sooner than later.
For now, though, Jones isn’t concerned so much with surpassing more records, as he is with USC’s next opponent, Colorado, and ensuring that he does his part so that the Trojans can continue on their winning ways.
“I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Jones said, “just making the most of my opportunities, and doing anything I can to help the team win.”