Sophomore RB Tony Jones Jr. catching on in Notre Dame backfield

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly approached a swell of waiting media following Notre Dame’s first practice of fall camp on Aug. 1 at Culver Academies.

But, before he was enveloped by the horde of cameras and recorders, the eighth-year Irish head coach heard a voice.

“Coach, give me a shout-out!”

The half-hearted request emanated from the general direction of Tony Jones Jr. — a 5-foot-11, 225-pound sophomore running back — whose wide, unwavering grin gave him away.

Kelly stopped, then smiled.

“What’s your name again?” he asked. The throng of teammates surrounding Jones burst into a chorus of giddy laughter.

Then, Kelly dutifully turned to the media.

“The best player in camp has been Tony Jones,” he loudly announced.

The ironic twist, of course, is that Jones need not beg for attention. After sitting out his freshman season in 2016, the St. Petersburg, Fla., native has worked himself into the running back rotation alongside juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.

In two seasons in South Bend, Adams has racked up 1,768 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, all while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Williams — perhaps the most explosive runner on the Irish roster — has scored four times, the most memorable a 59-yard sprint in a 2016 road win over Syracuse.

But while his elders tout more experience, Jones possesses a skill that sets him apart.

“They each have a different style, and you could be very pleased with all three of them running the football,” Kelly said of his running back trio. “But in some of the other areas they tend to separate themselves.

“Tony Jones is an extraordinary player when it comes to catching the football. That’s a real strength of his.”

Jones’ strength could further improve an Irish passing attack that managed 25 catches, 209 yards and a touchdown by running backs Adams and Williams in 2016.

The rising sophomore brings maneuverability, versatility.

Oh, and durability.

Except for a broken wrist in eighth grade, Jones has yet to suffer a significant injury. That might be because, prior to his first game of tackle football at seven years old, his mother — Natalie Jones — procured holy oil from her church, said a prayer and rubbed it across her son’s forehead, hands, knees and ankles.

“She doesn’t like the physical stuff. She was just trying to keep me safe,” Jones said with a grin. “It just stuck. Now I do it before games.”

These days, Jones’ mother still attends as many games as she can. But if she can’t make it?

“She gives me this big container of oil that’s been prayed over,” Jones said.

Thankfully, Jones — who rushed for 514 yards and 11 touchdowns and added six catches for 149 yards and one score in his senior season at Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy in 2016 — doesn’t mind “the physical stuff.”

Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t improve.

“I’m focusing on pass blocking right now,” Jones said. “Pass blocking is the way to the league, to be honest. Backs are separated through pass blocking, and that will help me stay in on third down.”

But, if a lengthy NFL career doesn’t pan out, Jones has other ideas. The sophomore, who grew up watching Star Trek and Power Rangers movies with his grandmother, plans to pursue a career in the film industry — in special effects, to be exact.

“I just like the process of it,” Jones said. “When I came here first I was a business (major), and I didn’t really have an interest in it. Then I started looking into all the majors and I saw film, television and theater.

“So I asked my mom and she said, ‘Just follow your dreams. Because you’re going to be the one doing it, not us.’”

For now, Jones’ gridiron dreams are more immediate.

And, with a football in his hand and holy oil dripping from his forehead, the sophomore is capable of producing some pretty dazzling special effects.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Tony Jones Jr. (34) tries to break a tackle from Daelin Hayes with Nick Watkins far left, during the Blue Gold Game, Saturday, April 22, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ