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Tony Jones Jr. sees increased role in offense

| Sunday, September 16, 2018

In a game that saw Notre Dame grind things out against a tough SEC defense in Vanderbilt, one of the bright spots on the day came from junior running back Tony Jones Jr. From as early as the first drive for the Irish (3-0), Jones was able to establish a presence in the run game, something the coaches stayed committed to by giving him 17 carries which he was able to turn into 118 rushing yards.

After seeing just 44 carries last season, Jones’ heavier usage Saturday came as a pleasant surprise for him as it allowed for more of a rhythm in his play.

“I feel like I’m in high school again,” Jones said. “Getting a lot of carries …to be honest I would say that I’m a rhythm back and I need five-plus carries to get going and keep going.”

Much of the success Jones had on the day was due to a strong performance by the Notre Dame offensive line, which provided a strong push up front all day, something Jones acknowledged after the game.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish junior running back Tony Jones Jr. runs up the middle during Notre Dame’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“They were great. They learned from their mistakes last week and our whole team executed very well in the run game, better than last week,” Jones said. “Coach [Kelly] wanted them to work harder and fire off the ball more, and I guess they did that.”

While Jones got the start on Saturday, it was sophomore hybrid back Jafar Armstrong who had started the previous two games. The combined efforts of the two backs in addition to the running ability of senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is something Jones felt set the offense up for success in their attack.

“I would say that me and Jafar are really good running backs. I wouldn’t worry about who’s starting,” Jones said. “[Brandon] spreads out the defense more and keeps them on their heels a bit, so that was good.”

After seeing the offense struggle to execute against Ball State the week before, Saturday’s performance against the Commodores (2-1) was encouraging for head coach Brian Kelly, who noted his team’s rushing successes after the game.

“Again, we had a tough week last week, and I think a lot of it fell on me, and I did a poor job preparing our football team. You know, there was a lot of movement, a lot of stunting, things that I wish that I did a better job. That’s behind us. We got back to what we do in terms of our preparation for our football team. And I was confident that we would come out and be the group that I believe we can be,” Kelly said. “We’re far from where we need to be as an offensive line, as an offensive group, as I mentioned earlier. But we’re capable of running the football with some effectiveness.

“ … And the other thing that you’re seeing is a maturation of both running backs. We saw some things today, and I’m sure you all were observant of it as well, was we were running today light much better, we saw our cuts, we were fitting much better. That’s why I say, we’re three games into this. But we had two really good opponents that have tested us, I think you’re going to start to see that there’s much more of a confidence level starting to emerge with that group that they can be effective all year.”

Besides picking up his first 100-yard rushing performance of his collegiate career, Jones also found himself involved in the passing game, leading the team in receiving yards with two receptions for 56 yards. Kelly recognized an opportunity to utilize Jones in this fashion by implementing the wheel route against the defense Vanderbilt was presenting.

“Lot of manned coverage, so we’re getting the wheel, drive, big combination,” Kelly said. “So if you do a good job defending him, then we’re creating space on the drive route coming back, so they’re really easy complements for us versus man coverage.”

The receiving role out of the backfield has typically been Armstrong’s so far this season, so when Jones was called upon Saturday, he saw it as an opportunity to again emphasize the strength the Irish have in the backfield in an offense that is still changing every week — looking to find what works for them and what doesn’t.

“Jafar is fast and he’s physical, and I’m fast and physical, so you can pick your poison,” Jones said. “Sometimes we switch off. It doesn’t matter. … Brandon is looking at me now. I tell him before the play like ‘B look, B look’, or something like that.”

The Irish now sit at 3-0 on the season after three-straight one-possession games at home. Certainly not everything has been figured out yet on both sides of the ball, but the team does believe it is getting there, and Tony Jones Jr. is showing early on that he can help contribute in this offense. After Saturday’s performance, he now has 224 yards on 39 carries with a pair of rushing touchdowns. His role appears to be increasing, and with it will come a clearer picture as to the identity of the offense. The team now prepares for its first road test of the season when they head to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for a matchup against Wake Forest. With unanswered questions about the team and concerns about the weather as the Irish head to the East Coast during hurricane season, it would be easy for distractions to pop up for the Irish. For Jones, however, those other things don’t matter as much. He’s just happy to be hopping on a plane and travelling with his team next weekend.

“To be honest I just like flights, so I’m ready to leave up out of here and get on a flight,” Jones said. “It’ll be good to get some team bonding.”

Jones saw his number called upon more often on Saturday. He’ll hope to produce similar results when called upon again in the coming weeks.

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