Tony Jones Jr. knew nothing was guaranteed when he declared for the NFL Draft on New Year’s Eve.
Following four seasons of more downs than ups at Notre Dame, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound running back opted to pass on a potential fifth year with the Irish.
Jones ended his Notre Dame career on a high note with 11 carries for 135 yards including a 84-yard touchdown run in the 33-9 Camping World Bowl victory over Iowa State. But Jones was far from prolific throughout his career.
In 38 games across three seasons, Jones tallied 271 carries for 1,481 yards and 12 touchdowns. Eight different FBS players rushed for more yardage last season alone than Jones did for his entire career.
That didn’t prevent Jones from receiving one of the 337 invitations to this week’s NFL Scouting Combine. Jones always believed he belonged in that elite company, but he was prepared to use a potential snub as motivation.
“I always had it in my head that if I didn’t go, it would be a chip on my shoulder and I’d have to work a little bit harder to prove myself to the coaches,” Jones said.
Proving himself has been a constant state of mind for Jones in the past year. Just six months ago he wanted to prove that he could be the starting running back at Notre Dame well before he had his sights set on the NFL.
“I didn’t think about it, because I was still trying to win the starting job,” Jones said. “So I wasn’t really worried about that. I was just trying to prove that I was the starter and I was the best option for our team.”
Now he’s out to prove that betting on himself was the right decision. A strong performance at the combine could go a long way in convincing NFL decision-makers. That starts with Jones showing his speed.
“I’m trying to establish that I can run,” Jones said. “Everybody thinks I’m not fast, so I’m trying to prove that point and that I’m a good match for all the teams.”
Jones said he’s aiming for a 40-yard dash time in the 4.5-second range when the running backs complete their on-field workouts Friday in Indianapolis. But that target isn’t make or break for an NFL running back prospect. At last year’s combine, both Iowa State’s David Montgomery (4.63) and Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary (4.66) failed to break into the 4.5s. They both went on to be selected in the third round by the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills, respectively, and rushed for more than 750 yards each as rookies.
In his pre-combine workouts at Michael Johnson Performance just outside of Dallas, Jones made speed and agility a priority with an added focus on improving his diet. He’s been working out with former Notre Dame teammate Troy Pride Jr., who’s hoping to clock a 4.2-second 40 at the combine.
The speedy cornerback has been encouraging Jones.
“Troy tells me just to run,” Jones said. “Don’t even worry about your time. Just do what you do. If the time’s good, the time’s good. If not, you have to go back to the drawing board.”
Many draft analysts have pegged Jones as a likely undrafted free agent signing, but Jones is used to being doubted. Even Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly alluded to Jones being underestimated throughout his career.
“Tony has been kind of pigeonholed into this kind of journeyman back, but he does so many things well,” Kelly said after Jones rushed for 176 yards in last year’s win over USC. “He just doesn’t have 4.3 speed. But he blocks, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s going to get you the extra yard. Who wouldn’t want a back like that?
“He plays through nicks and bumps. He practices hard. He’s a great teammate. Give me a boat load of Tony Joneses and I’ll take them in a heartbeat.”
Jones hopes his senior season helped convince NFL personnel to share Kelly’s opinion.
“I proved that when I get the carries, the team does better,” Jones said. “Throughout the season, our running game was tough. When I got the ball more than 10 times, I’d get like 100 yards. In my opinion, teams should think I proved I can tote the ball, carry the team whenever I need to and I can catch and pass block.”
Jones rushed for more than 100 yards in five games last season and needed at least 10 carries in all but one of those games. He was given at least 10 carries on six occasions with four of them resulting in 100-yard games. He failed to hit the 100-yard mark against Boston College (15 carries for 61 yards) and Stanford (14 for 50). Jones also struggled against Georgia (9 for 21), Michigan (8 for 14) and Navy (9 for 26).
Yet Jones finished the season ranked No. 24 in the FBS with 5.95 yards per carry. A mix of good and bad from Jones reflected the inconsistent nature of Notre Dame’s rushing attack last season.
The Irish will have to right those inconsistencies next season without Jones.
“It was a tough decision,” Jones said. “A lot of dudes stayed and our team is going to be good, but at the end of the day I have to do what’s best for myself. I proved myself and I got my degree, so I thought it was the right decision because the clock is tick-ticking for backs.”
Jones had to wait his turn at Notre Dame. Now he’s ready to prove he’s worth another chance.
“I’m a living testament of patience is key,” Jones said. “I had to wait a little minute, but I made the best of my carries and my touches. I proved that I’m a good back and a back that’s great for any team that needs me.”