TAMPA, Fla. -- Ronald Jones II's "welcome to the NFL" moment during his rookie year wasn’t something typical, like getting clobbered in the backfield by a 290-pound defensive lineman. It was sitting on the bench, staring up at the bright lights of Raymond James Stadium and feeling lost and defeated.
“I thought, ‘Should I have stayed in school another year for experience?’ and things like that,” the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back told ESPN. “It was a big adjustment.”
He’d left USC a year early rather than stay and try to surpass Marcus Allen to become the school’s No. 2 all-time leading rusher. He found himself a healthy scratch the first four weeks of the season -- humiliating for Jones and unusual for a second-round draft pick.
When he finally did see game action, he struggled to process information and make split-second decisions.
“I couldn’t play fast because I was so worried about missing one of my assignments,” said Jones, who finished 2018 with 44 rushing yards on 22 carries.
“He just went in the cellar,” personal running backs coach Luke Neal told ESPN. “He was in the tank.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and he’s not only kept his starting job after the Bucs brought in LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette -- he’s carrying the load for a unit decimated by injuries, with back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances. He put 111 rushing yards on the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4 and 106 rushing yards on the Chicago Bears.
“I think he made [Bears LB] Roquan Smith miss dead in the hole twice,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s always had that ability [and] he’s really got much better patience. He’s not running as fast to the hole and [he’s] seeing things better this year like he did near the end of last year. He’s just growing in the offense.”
Most importantly, he’s walking taller. And no longer broken, he believes in himself again. But it took a lot to get there.
‘It took a lot to get him out of that cellar’
When Jones first got to Arizona to train in the 2019 offseason, Neal couldn’t even put him through a practice for a week and a half. They just talked. They had to rebuild his confidence. He told Jones about Hall of Famer Walter Payton’s early struggles.
“It took a lot for him to get him out of that cellar. It took a lot,” said Neal, who put Jones through a 3.5-mile trail run uphill -- a staple in Payton’s training -- not just for stamina, but for mental toughness, as the most daunting part is when you can’t see what’s up ahead.
Jones also had to learn to watch his mistakes on film so he could correct them, especially with blocking and blitz pickup.
“He told me I was being too hard on myself,” Jones said of Neal. “I realized that these guys are in the league too and they’re gonna make plays. So you’ve just gotta elevate yourself. … I realized I had to do things quicker and just stay on my P's and Q's. I had to study more, get in my playbook.”
Neal asked him, “Do you know why you come off the field?’” Jones responded, “No. Not really.”
Neal said, “The reason you come off the field is because they don’t trust you. It’s as simple as that.”
The words stung.
They got to work correcting his angles and hand placement. He also had to work on staying low in his break and to let the ball guide him to where he’s supposed to be.
The work paid off. Jones made enough of an improvement that Arians elevated him to a starting role in Week 9 at Seattle. He finished the year with 724 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He caught 31 passes for 309 receiving yards. His average yards per carry went from 1.9 in 2018 to 4.2 in 2019.
That work continued this offseason. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he’d catch 300 passes a day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he’d catch 150-300, but from different passers with different types of balls, like a Pop Warner football, which is much smaller and more difficult to see and to grab.
“His hands were sore. There were times when I had to physically rub his hands out, rub his thumbs out, rub his fingertips out. I was trying to teach him to catch the ball with his fingertips and not his hands,” Neal said.
Neal said he finally saw the light come on this year. Jones' training partner, Jamal Williams of the Green Bay Packers, saw it too.
Williams told Neal, “He’s gonna be incredible this year,’” Neal said. “We all felt it.”
“He’s gotten over that immaturity hump to where he’s starting to mature more now. He’s doing so many things differently this year,” Neal said, pointing out his diet, filled with healthy protein sources like fish and salads.
“The sky is the limit for this young man,” Neal said. “His ceiling is so high. It’s untapped. He’s just a canvas right now -- he’s a blank canvas right now…it’s basically creating and molding him into possibly one of the best ones to come along.”
'I'm still playing for him'
A dismal start to his NFL career wasn’t the first time Jones had to pick himself up. His father, Ronald Jones Sr., passed away from a heart attack while awaiting a heart transplant in 2012, when Ronald II was a sophomore in high school.
He still suited up that week. He wrote a eulogy but was too overcome with grief to read it. He wears his father’s Army dog tags and points toward the sky after each touchdown. The date of his father’s death is even tattooed on his body.
“My father always taught me … I’m the only person that can stop me. Literally. He had me playing up when I was Pop Warner. I played up a division just to get with the bigger boys because he said, ‘If you want to go to that next level, you’re gonna have to excel [at] your game. Just things like that. He’s the one that got me into football, and motivated me to be the player that I am, and I’m still playing for him till this day.”
But you can’t get to that next level and excel without making corrections and revisiting mistakes and processing failure, like the time during the 2019 season when Jones was benched during the second half of the Bucs’ Week 13 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jones whiffed on a blitz pickup, resulting in a QB sack.
“That’s usually the thing that makes them fail as a rookie, or a sophomore even is pass protection, because they don’t do it very often in college,” Arians said.
“Obviously, no player wants to come out of the game,” Jones said. “I kind of just took it as a coaching moment -- learn from it. You can’t keep making the same mistake, so try to correct the old mistake and not make a new one.”
The extra work and added focus showed dividends again. Arians was so impressed with Jones’ offseason that he named him the starter at the beginning of camp -- – a role he’s held on to, despite the additional competition of Fournette, McCoy and third-round draft pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
“He was solid last year. He was growing each week as a player, a very young player. Was a one-trick pony runner only,” Arians said. “He’s grown into possibly a three-down player.”
Jones will have opportunities this week when they face the Packers (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), who play more two-deep safety than any other team in the league and are giving up over 4.8 yards per rush.
Jones' 359 rushing yards are currently eighth-most in the NFL. His biggest improvement has come in yards after contact. His yards after contact per rush have gone from 1.26 in 2018 to 1.86 in 2019 and 2.27 in 2020, eighth-most in the league.
"Explosive runs and ran hard and took care of the football and he's a great runner," Brady said of Jones after the Bears game. "He's just doing a great job for us."
His hands are still a work in progress though. He recorded three drops in Weeks 3-4.
McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2011 and rushing yards in 2013, sees something special in his new teammate.
“RoJo, he’s one of the most-talented running backs I’ve seen in a long time,” McCoy said. “It makes me remember back to when I was in my second or third year -- just naturally quick, the acceleration, agility -- he has a lot of those tools. He’s really, really good.”