Ronald Jones II is a rare specimen: an underrated USC running back
LenDale White watched USC’s game against Arizona on Saturday in Nashville with friends Vince Young, Bo Scaife, Keith Bullock and Lavelle Hawkins, who were in town for a Tennessee Titans reunion.
Over steaks, a dispute flared. White told the group that USC’s Ronald Jones II was “the best running back in the country.”
Most of White’s friends preferred Saquon Barkley of Penn State. (Hawkins didn’t have a preference. He went to California, White said, and was preoccupied with praying for USC to lose.)
White didn’t have any support.
Until, that is, Jones offered some: On Saturday, he ran for 194 yards against Arizona to become the first USC back in more than a decade to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
The last player to do it: White.
Jones has turned White into a fan, and White believes that Jones has turned himself into a rare specimen: an underrated USC running back.
White was impressed by the 1,000-yard seasons, and he said Jones could have done more if only USC had given him the ball more.
“If we would’ve fed him,” White said, “he probably would’ve been up for the Heisman.”
Jones is a throwback to White’s era. For a decade, “Tailback U” became tailback by committee. This season, Jones is clearly the featured back — even if he is not featured often enough to satisfy White’s tastes.
“He reminds me of Reggie Bush,” White said. “When he gets out in the open field, nobody’s going to tackle him.”
Jones has already equaled his rushing total from last season, 1,082 yards, but has done it in 18 fewer carries. He added more than 10 pounds of muscle between seasons, up to about 207 pounds. The added bulk has made him a terror between the tackles without costing him explosiveness. He has a long run of 86 yards this season and had a 98-yard sprint to the end zone nullified Saturday by a holding penalty. Jones would’ve eclipsed 300 yards against Arizona if not for penalties.
Jones’ biggest improvement has come as a pass catcher. Helton did not consider Jones a complete back in his first two seasons with the program, mainly because he was mediocre in the passing game.
While he lacks the natural route-running ability of his backup, Stephen Carr, Jones has already equaled last season’s 11 receptions and has more than doubled last season’s receiving yards, with 153.
During a postgame news conference Saturday, Helton marveled at the throw that quarterback Sam Darnold completed to Jones on a wheel route in the fourth quarter. But then he turned to Jones, seated beside him, and marveled again.
“And then for this one to make that catch; that was probably the biggest play of the game,” Helton said.
In each of his three seasons at USC, Jones has produced his best performances at this time of year, when October turns into November. As a freshman, he posted a season high Nov. 7. As a sophomore, he posted his season highs Oct. 27 and Nov. 5.
It is a daylight saving time bump: Everyone gets an extra hour of sleep; Jones gets 100 yards or more of extra production.
Two weeks ago, Jones rushed for 216 yards. So on Saturday, USC rewarded Jones with 27 carries, the most of his career.
It was even enough to satisfy White, if not his friends.
At its “predator” linebacker position, USC is without two players who at different times were candidates to make the all-conference team.
It didn’t matter Saturday.
With Porter Gustin and Christian Rector injured, Jordan Iosefa shifted from inside linebacker to become the latest USC defender to excel in the role.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast relied on Iosefa and outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu to hold the edge against Arizona — a crucial job against a zone-read offense. Iosefa finished with eight tackles, including a sack, and forced a fumble.
“For the first time out there,” Helton said, “I thought he did wonderful.”
Carr was limited Saturday to “get some of the rust off” after the running back sat out four games because of a foot injury, Helton said. But Helton reported that Carr suffered no setbacks.
Aca’Cedric Ware was the primary backup, with 14 rushes for 122 yards. Carr played only a few snaps and carried three times for 10 yards.
“I thought he looked healthy in warmups; he looked healthy in the game,” Helton said. “I didn’t think he was quite ready for 40 plays in the game.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand
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