RB Tony Jones Jr. gives Notre Dame its third commitment of weekend

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Recruiting running backs from Florida has developed into a trend for Notre Dame.

With Autry Denson, a former Florida-to-Notre Dame running back himself, taking over as the Irish running backs coach, it only make sense that the trend continues.

It did on Sunday when running back Tony Jones Jr. gave his verbal commitment to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

"It just felt right to me,” Jones said Sunday following his two-day trip to South Bend for Notre Dame’s junior day. “The coaching staff, the facilities, the players, the practice, the campus, the academics. It all added up.”

Jones became the third recruit of the weekend to give the Irish his pledge. Long snapper John Shannon and cornerback Julian Love committed to Notre Dame on Saturday. The trio joins offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer in Notre Dame’s four-man 2016 recruiting class.

The commitment of Jones marked a wealth of good news for the Irish. He’s the first running back to commit to Denson at Notre Dame, and he comes from the talent-littered IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Jones has earned the status as the top running back in the state of Florida, according to CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. 247Sports slates Jones as a four-star recruit and the No. 12 running back in the country. Rivals rates him as a three-star prospect and No. 29 at the position.

“It's good news on two fronts,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame has a running back that can run between the tackles but has enough speed to hit the perimeter and cause damage there, and now it looks like they've replaced (former running backs coach) Tony Alford with an outstanding coach who already has a blue-chip player coming in.”

The chance to play for Denson helped convince Jones to join the Irish. He’s making the same decision to leave Florida that Irish running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant made in the 2013 recruiting class. Running back Dexter Williams, a 2015 signee, is also from Florida.

"Coach went here and came from Florida like me,” Jones said. “If I'm around him and get taught by him, I think it would be good. He's the leading rusher at Notre Dame, and he made it to the league."

The 6-foot, 210-pound Jones rushed for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 66 carries as a junior at IMG Academy. He has offers from Miami, Kentucky, Ole Miss and South Carolina, among others.

Notre Dame has tried to tap into the talent at IMG Academy in the last few recruiting cycles but has failed to do so successfully. With Jones, the Irish coaching staff had an extra connection. His father played for ND associate head coach Mike Denbrock at Illinois State and for the Buffalo Destroyers in the Arena Football League.

Returning to IMG Academy in the future could be fruitful for the Irish. In the 2016 class alone, the Ascenders have players committed to Florida State, Florida, LSU, Ohio State and Clemson.

"It will be the most talented high school team ever in my 36 years covering recruiting,” Lemming said. “When you can pick and choose great players from across the country, it should be."

Jones will try to bring some of that talent with him. He said Sunday he plans to recruit teammate Rahshaun Smith, a five-star outside linebacker per Rivals, to Notre Dame. He also named defensive back Craig Watts, a four-star Florida product, and quarterback Dwayne Haskins, a four-star recruit who also visited Notre Dame on Saturday, as targets on his personal recruiting board.

A commitment to Notre Dame wasn’t planned before the visit, Jones said. But when he saw videos and photos of a Notre Dame game day and the lineage of Irish running backs, Jones was swayed.

“Before I went to talk to coach Kelly, it hit me,” Jones said. “I wanted to be Irish.”

Below are junior highlights of Jones via Hudl.

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

ESPN ranks Notre Dame running back commit Tony Jones Jr. No. 23 at his position in the 2016 recruiting class. (Photo courtesy of Student Sports)