Tony Jones Jr. using transformative offseason to emerge in Notre Dame's backfield

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider


Tony Jones Jr. knew something needed to change after an injury-riddled sophomore season at Notre Dame. It took a dose of honesty from his father for Jones to realize what that transformation should look like.

His father, who played at Illinois State and in the Arena Football League, convinced the junior running back that his injury issues, which started with an ankle sprain in the third game of the 2017 season against Boston College, weren’t just bad luck.

“To be honest, my dad told me that all injuries are from stuff off the field,” Jones said. “Like stuff you do at home, your stretching and your eating. I asked him, ‘What should I do?’ Now I’m here.”

The revamped Jones cleaned up his diet by avoiding snacks and fatty foods, worked on his flexibility with some yoga, and spent more time working with Notre Dame’s training staff. Jones also credited “getting closer to God” as part of his development.

The changes are visible. A trimmer-looking Jones said he dropped from 230 pounds last season to 217 pounds entering preseason camp this month. He could feel the difference during the daily grind of camp with much less soreness.

“My ankle feels great,” Jones said. “I just feel like I’m more explosive, and I’m lighter. I feel like I have my step back a little bit.”

But will those changes show up in a tangible way on the field for Jones? He said he knocked close to a tenth of a second off of his 40-yard dash time down to 4.59 seconds. That’s still not blazing speed for the 5-foot-11 running back. Jones must be well-rounded to have success.

“Tony’s been around here for a while, so he’s progressing nicely, the way that he should be,” running backs coach Autry Denson said. “Just being more vocal, being more confident, knowing it’s his second year in the offensive system we’re running. So just being more assertive and holding other guys to the standard he holds himself to.”

Jones showed his experience on one specific run in a practice earlier this month. After taking a handoff in a scrimmage setting, he made a quick cut to his right to find an opening for what would have been a 60-yard touchdown. It was the kind of run Josh Adams was able to break repeatedly last season in Notre Dame’s offense. By reading his blocks, Jones could do the same, even if he’s not as big or as fast as Adams.

“Trust your tracks,” Jones said was the key to that run. “Just hit the hole at 100 miles per hour. That’s all there is to it, really.”

In addition to his physical improvement, Jones has worked on being calmer on the football field. Last season, Jones said he would get excited and burn up all his energy early in games.

“From an emotional standpoint, he’s a very passionate guy,” Denson said. “With that maturity, he’s learned how to control that passion to where it doesn’t spill over to be a distraction to him. He’s really maturing mentally. Physically, he’s had the tools since he got here. We’re expecting really big things out of Tony.”

Jones will be tested on keeping his excitement in check in the first game of the season against Michigan. Three of Jones’ former teammates at Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy, including starting quarterback Shea Patterson, play for the Wolverines.

All trash talk via text messages stopped this summer in anticipation of the game.

“I’m just ready to ball out to prove to them that they should have come here,” Jones said.

A bump in production seems all but guaranteed for Jones. Last season, Jones rushed for 232 yards and three touchdowns on 44 carries. His career-high in carries (10) and yards (59) came against Wake Forest.

Even though he described his fellow running backs — including Dexter Williams, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis — as lethal, Jones is ready to stake his claim as a significant part of the running game. The starting role is up for grabs, and there should be plenty of carries to be had.

“I’m really excited to show the world what I should have shown them in parts of last year,” Jones said. “Now it’s my time to shine.”

Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. runs with the football during a drill at Saturday morning's practice inside Notre Dame Stadium.