This year, USC is the school of hard knocks. A combination of injuries and sheer talent has resulted in some freshman players learning by being thrown into the fire and responding with memorable in-game performances.
The emergence of Ronald Jones II as one of the most exciting running backs in the country — as a freshman — accentuates Helton’s dedication to developing USC’s tremendous young talent. And sure, there have been some bumps in the road because of it, but the future looks bright at USC with players like “RoJo” at the wheel.
Last weekend, Jones broke LendDale White’s single-game USC freshman rushing record with 177 yards and a touchdown — one home game after another freshman, Cameron Smith, had three interceptions and a touchdown in the Trojans’ win against then-No. 3 Utah.
“Everybody has got a different timetable. For some freshmen, that light comes on immediately,” Helton said after practice Monday. “I go back and I think about Roberts Woods and the Marqise Lees and the Nelson Agholors — those guys whose light just came on. And right now Ronald’s light is coming on.”
Jones admits that he never imagined he’d be able to knock on the door of the 1,000 rushing mark this season, but added that personal statistics have never been his priority, and that he is more dedicated to helping USC win a championship.
“I honestly thought it would obviously take a little longer,” Jones said.
Jones said that he has heavily relied on the advice he has received throughout the season from veterans like redshirt senior Tre Madden, who has helped break down opposing defenses with him on the field and in film sessions.
“I’m happy to be in the position and role I’m in to help the team,” Jones said. “Our coaches do a great job of preparing us for any situation, so just with the reps and the experience, I felt myself getting better.”
Jones leads the team with 710 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season on 89 carries. He’s just 148 yards shy of Charles White’s freshman rushing record, with three games left in the regular season. Helton loves Jones’ commitment to improving his weaknesses which has resulted in his remarkable success.
“Where I am most proud of him, we all knew that he was a great runner, but I really like what he is trying to do with the things that might have been a weakness of his when he first came in — like catching the ball,” Helton said. “He is really focusing on things he wants to get better on … You saw that with that great touchdown catch.”
Since he arrived at USC in the spring, Jones has been working with quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Browne on catching balls from quick passes, which give him more space to utilize his speed. After recording his first receiving touchdown against Arizona, Jones said he feels that his hard work has paid off, and added that his teammates can finally stop questioning his catching ability.
“Now these guys can stop making fun of me. I finally got a receiving touchdown, so it feels good,” Jones said.
Jones said while growing up in Texas, he always loved watching USC and Reggie Bush. Bush’s dual threat of being able to catch the football on top of his running capability inspired him to work on his receiving ability since he got to campus. Consequently, he said there hasn’t been too much that’s changed for him from his life back home except the food: He loves USC, his teammates and playing football everyday.
“The coaches told me that I have to focus on things like time management, but you know other than the food, the transition [from high school to college] has been pretty smooth,” Jones said. “Five Guys is pretty good. Buffalo Spot is one of my favorite places. I miss Hutchins and Whataburger, though.”
Other than Bush, Jones says that the player he emulates most is Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles because of his similar “quick lateral cuts, speed, dreadlocks, No. 25.”
Running back coach Johnny Nansen said that the thing that makes Jones’ running style so unique is his uncanny ability to keep his legs moving, especially after making contact with defenders.
“He’s just Ronald,” Nansen said. “He’s a great kid who works hard every single day on something new.”
He added that once Jones has shaken free from a tackle, he’s immediately looking for more yards and to score.
“It’s just a natural thing that he has got,” Nansen said. “You have to watch him play to see that he never stops his feet on contact; it is hard to bring him down. It is going to take a couple of guys because he is such an aggressive runner.”
Helton, who has served as the team’s offensive coordinator all season, has had the difficult task of dividing the running plays between USC’s five dynamic backs. He says that Jones has a unique combination of size and strength that give him a “phenomenal breakaway speed.” Helton noted that though Jones is 185 pounds, he runs like a big man, which is comparable to the running style of NFL great Roger Craig.
“We call it a horse kick because he will get to that level where all of sudden his legs will explode. It is kind of Roger Craig-ish,” Helton said. “[Jones] won’t know who that is, but it reminds you of that type of leg drive on contact. You know, you see other running backs whose feet die on contact. He explodes on contact, and he does a really nice job with it.”
Because Jones gets down the football field so quickly, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Steven Mitchell said that he loses track of where Jones has gone — which makes it really hard for him to keep block for him, as was seen on Jones’s long run against Arizona.
“He was actually juking me,” said Mitchell. “I was running down and trying to keep blocking and I really didn’t know where he was. That kid is amazing. I try and make as many blocks as I can.”
Based on what Jones has been able to do on the field so far this season, it appears that he has a bright career ahead of him as a member of the Trojans.