Growing up and playing Little League football for his dad, Tony Jones Jr. learned how to block.
When he enrolled at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., he was caught behind an older star at running back who would take his skills to Florida State.
As an upperclassmen at IMG, Jones moved into a lead role at running back for the Ascenders, where he needed just 144 carries to rush for 1,285 yards (8.9-yard average) and 23 touchdowns over his final two seasons with the star-studded program.
Add it all up and it sheds light on statements made by Brian Kelly a couple of weeks ago when asked what Jones – who shares Notre Dame’s running back position with juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams – needed to do in order to become a part of a three-man rotation.
“Nothing. He’s in it,” said Kelly of Jones’ spot among a triumvirate. “He’s well-ensconced in that rotation.”
Kelly took it a step further. Make that one giant leap further.
“He’s a guy that if at any time we wanted to call him a No. 1 (running back), we could call him a No. 1,” Kelly said. “He’s done all the things to build that trust in terms of protections, catching the ball out of the backfield…He’s earned that through his work this spring.”
That’s some pretty rarified air for the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder after preserving a year of eligibility in 2016. Kelly didn’t keep Jones off the field last season because he wasn’t ready to play. With Adams, Williams and since-departed Tarean Folston, it made sense to stagger the eligibility moving forward.
“Quite frankly, (he’s been that way) through the time he’s been here,” Kelly said. “Last year was a conscience decision on our part not to play him more than he wasn’t ready to play. He’s in (the rotation) now. He’s going to be a part of it. You’ll see a lot of him this fall.”
With a vast majority of Notre Dame’s 15 practice sessions closed, there weren’t many opportunities outside of the football program’s purview to see Jones this spring. He made strong, quick impressions.
On Saturday, March 25, in the fifth practice of the spring, Jones made a 20-yard touchdown run look easy, caught a touchdown pass from Montgomery VanGorder in the red zone, scored from five yards out, took a swing pass from Ian Book and raced 40 yards, added a 47-yard run in a 2s. vs. 2s. rep, and then tacked on a 15-yard run in a 1s vs. 1s play.
Jones wrapped up that fifth practice of the spring when he beat Rover Drue Tranquill to the edge for a seven-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Wimbush.
Saturday, in the Blue-Gold Game in Notre Dame Stadium, sledding was a bit tougher for Jones as six of his eight carries netted a total of just one yard.
But on two fourth-quarter totes, Jones clipped off 17- and 27-yard runs to finish with eight carries for 45 yards. He also added a 12-yard reception.
“I’ve got a long way to go, but I feel I can contribute to the team,” said the quiet, reserved Jones as he tried to deflect credit to his fellow running backs. “The confidence I get from this spring is knowing that I can play.”
Oh, he can play. Jones is a rare combination of big back with elusiveness in small spaces, the ability to make people miss in the open field, another gear to clip off chunks of yards when daylight opens up, and a bit of power when he has to drop his pads and take on defenders.
Jones credits his success to his background.
“Growing up in Little League, I played fullback,” Jones said. “I never ran routes. I used to stay in and block. I say thanks to my dad for that one because he was my coach and he put me at fullback.
“My first year (at IMG), I played slot receiver because our star running back was Ryan Green. So I played slot for like half a year, moved to wideout, and then running back. I came up catching the ball.”
It all makes sense while accentuating the fact that Jones obviously is a quick study at whatever he does. Show him how and he’ll show he can do it.
“He’s 225 pounds, he can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, he’s assignment correct and he can run elusively and get into the second level,” Kelly smiled. “He’s a pretty good back.”
That didn’t make last season any easier for Jones, who battled through the emotions of a red-shirt season.
“At first, it was tough,” said Jones of the 2016 season. “But I talked to my family and I waited and believed that God had a plan for me.
“I just learned from Josh, T. Fol and Dex. I learned from their mistakes and what they did (well) and just learned what college was really like.”
Based upon the results of the spring, Notre Dame’s 12 upcoming opponents will learn a little bit about Jones this fall.
“A good all-around back,” said Jones, grudgingly offering an appraisal of himself. “I’ve got more confidence behind me now because the team gives me props.
“Just from last year to now, I’ve got a better confidence level and a better attitude toward my role.”
Jones admits there is one aspect of his role that has taken longer to learn.
“Lining up in the slot,” Jones said. “You’ve got to learn the formations and route concepts. It’s like another playbook.”
Based upon spring results, Jones will pick up the nuances of the slot position in short order.
“I’ve just got to keep working and help the team as much as I can,” Jones said.
Clearly, help is on the way in the Irish backfield. His name is Tony Jones Jr.