Austin Jones’ fresh start at USC takes him back to Stanford this week

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 3, 2022. USC running back Austin Jones breaks free for a touchdown against Rice.
USC running back Austin Jones breaks free for one of his two touchdowns during his Trojans debut Saturday against Rice.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

As Stanford’s lead back last season, Austin Jones grew accustomed to running into crowded boxes.

No one in the Cardinal backfield could find much room to run a year ago. A football program known for its physical front and imposing ground game fell to last in the Pac-12 and 126th nationally, unable to scrounge more than 86 rushing yards per outing. The offense ground to a halt because of it — Jones, in his third season, led the team in carries (107), but managed a mere 3.5 yards per tote. He entered the NCAA transfer portal soon after the season ended in search of a new start.

He found it with Lincoln Riley at USC, where Jones has already established himself as a crucial member of a committee backfield with the Trojans. While he received just four carries in his USC debut last week against Rice, two went for touchdowns. The 48 rushing yards he tallied in that brief cameo were more than he managed in all but two games last year.

“You come to a new spot, there’s definitely a bunch of new opportunities, new stuff like that,” Jones said. “I just take it upon myself to maximize the opportunities I get.”


He should get even more of those chances this Saturday, when Jones travels to his old stomping grounds for USC’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford. Just don’t expect him to bite on suggestions his return to Palo Alto carries any added significance.

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“Just another game for me, really,” Jones insisted.

When his former teammates texted him this week, he said he offered each the same, boilerplate response: “See you this weekend.”

“I don’t really do the back and forth,” he said.

His new Trojans teammates, however, have sensed a different sort of energy from the senior this week.

“He’s definitely antsy,” Travis Dye said. “He wants to get after it, and I can’t wait to watch him play against his old guys.”

Jones and Dye should be crucial parts of USC’s offensive game plan Saturday, while dynamic freshman Raleek Brown may also factor in if he’s cleared to return. Brown practiced in limited fashion this week, and Riley expressed optimism Thursday, saying he “wouldn’t be close” to ruling out Brown or any other player considered questionable for Saturday.


USC running back Austin Jones scores a touchdown against Rice.
USC running back Austin Jones scores a second-quarter touchdown against Rice on September 3 at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

None of the three got more than a taste of the action last weekend. But if Stanford strives to control the clock on Saturday, as it often does, Riley said he’s prepared for the possibility of a low-possession game decided at the line of scrimmage and on the ground.

“Stanford certainly has tried to do that at times in the past and done a really good job of it,” Riley said. “Obviously, it puts a premium on how well we play defensively, it puts a premium on how well we can control the line of scrimmage offensively. To make the most of those possessions, you’re certainly going to have to be able to run the football.”

That’s the dependable role Riley hoped Jones would fill when he reached out soon after the running back entered the transfer portal. In spite of Jones’ declining production as a junior, Riley saw on tape a versatile starting back capable of playing on all three downs. He was impressed by Jones’ work in the passing game and his pride in pass protection.

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“We thought the opportunities he got to run the ball, he had good vision, explosion, ran hard and again just the combination of all that and bringing some experience and some game reps to a backfield where we felt that was important, it made it a no-brainer for us,” Riley said.

The fit has been seamless since. Last Saturday, in the afterglow of his first win at USC, Jones remarked on how different his circumstances were now carrying the ball at USC.

“Definitely a lot more daylight,” he said with a smile.