- Class: Sophomore (Eligibility 4)
- On the depth chart: No. 2 behind Josh Adams
- Post-spring status: Ascending
A four-star prospect per 24/7’s composite rankings and Scout.com’s 187th ranked player overall, Jones is the highest-ranked pure running back recruit of the Brian Kelly Era (No. 10 overall) per Scout’s rankings.
ESPN.com rated Jones as a three-star prospect and its 37th ranked RB while Rivals.com had Jones as its 21st-ranked ‘back and a three-star player as well.
Jones turned heads at the first practice open to the media during the spring, ripping off two long runs including one for a touchdown while running through and around tackles throughout the scrimmage-heavy session. He concluded the morning’s proceedings by catching the “game-winning” touchdown pass on 3rd-and-goal inside from the 10-yard line.
Since, it’s been clear to observers that Jones will not only join the fray this fall, but also likely play a key role in the season’s outcome.
“He is in it. He is well ensconced in that rotation. He’s a guy that if at anytime we wanted to call him a No. 1 we could call him a No. 1.” – Brian Kelly regarding Jones’ status exiting spring ball.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
Capable of serving as Notre Dame’s lead ‘back in future seasons, the best case scenario for the program this fall is that Jones’ talents augment those of juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams. Adams has the logical leg up for the starting job while Jones and Williams both showed they were capable of at least strong supporting roles heading into 2017.
The Irish running game will thrive if Jones and Williams can aid Adams over the 12-game slate, both as runners and receivers out of the backfield, and also in pass protection for rookie starter Brandon Wimbush.
According to running backs coach Autry Denson, there is no noticeable drop-off among them in the latter realm – a skillset that often proves vexing for young runners at the collegiate level.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Definitive third-string status behind Adams and Williams.
Someone technically has to be the “No. 3” runner in terms of carries and/or touches, and that’s not necessarily a bad designation for a redshirt-freshman paired with two juniors.
But it would be detrimental to the offense as a whole if that third-place contributor is a distant third, i.e., not consistently involved in the game day rotation, because in the case of Adams, Williams, and Jones, such separation is not readily apparent.
At some point, especially in a close contest against a top tier foe, Adams will likely earn 20-plus carries while Jones and Williams are relegated to less than five touches, but for the latter pair, it would be beneficial to their overall development – and to the offense in the long run – if those contests represent the exception rather than the rule.
As noted in freshman C.J. Holmes’ preview earlier this week, Cierre Wood was the first redshirted freshman to later lead a Notre Dame team in rushing yards, and he did so in both 2010 and 2011. Wood was the nation’s sixth-ranked running back prospect per Scout.com in 2009 – the highest ranked runner to ever suit up for Brian Kelly at the college level.
At No. 10 overall in the 2016 class, Jones ranks second in that regard, though he actually ranked lower in his class, No. 187 overall, than did Holmes among the current crop at 155. (Holmes was ranked as the No. 9 “Athlete” not as a running back.)
In terms of running style and frame, I’ve compared Jones’ to the late Rodney Culver on our IrishIllusrated.com podcasts, but Culver was a major contributor as a freshman in 1988 while Jones looks to make his initial impact in September of his sophomore season. (Like Jones, Culver was listed at 5’11” 225 pounds.)
Culver’s served as a backup fullback to Anthony Johnson in both ’88 and ’89, then started at fullback in 1990 (ahead of freshman Jerome Bettis) before pairing off at tailback in 1991 with Tony Brooks, serving as the team’s lone captain during the ’91 campaign.