RB Tony Jones Jr. breaks free as Notre Dame finds success with ground game

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Tony Jones Jr. is adamant the best, for him, is yet to come.

Even after the junior running back led the Irish with 118 rushing yards and 56 receiving yards in No. 8 Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt, Jones said he hasn’t peaked.

“Nah,” Jones said. “Not even near yet.”

But when will that come?

“I don’t know,” Jones said. “I’m just like y’all. I’m just learning as y’all are.”

The book on Notre Dame’s running game changed on Saturday. In the first two games of the season, the Irish only rushed for 249 yards and 2.8 yards per carry. Notre Dame (3-0) nearly matched their season total with 245 rushing yards against Vanderbilt (2-1).

In the first quarter alone, Notre Dame racked up 96 rushing yards including a 12-yard touchdown by quarterback Brandon Wimbush to establish a 10-0 lead through 15 minutes. The Commodores only recorded one tackle for a loss in the first quarter too.

The difference came with better blocking from Notre Dame’s offensive line.

“They learned from their mistakes last week,” Jones said. “Our whole team executed. We did very, very well in the run game — better than last week.”

Head coach Brian Kelly took the blame for failing to prepare the Irish for the different looks Ball State used defensively to limit Notre Dame’s offense. The preparation was better this week, Kelly said, and the difference showed.

“Now, we’ve got to do that each and every week, right? Prepare the right way, and then compete, get after it, be physical, run the football,” Kelly said. “That’s an SEC team. We ran it for (245) yards. I think that’s pretty good.”

Jones took advantage of his blocking by running hard up the field. He’s less elusive than sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong, who started the first two games of the season, but Jones has been productive when given opportunities.

Jones moved his season average to 5.7 yards per carry after hitting 6.9 against Vanderbilt. His 118 yards Saturday were the most rushing yards for a Notre Dame player since running back Josh Adams went for 202 against N.C. State last October.

Before Saturday, Armstrong had received more carries (28) than Jones. The more experienced running back, who played in 12 games last season and started against Stanford, has proven himself as a capable lead back.

“The other thing that you’re seeing is a maturation of both running backs,” Kelly said. “We saw some things today — and I’m sure you all were observant of it as well — that we were running to daylight much better. We saw our cuts. We were fitting much better.”

The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Jones admitted to feeling more comfortable when he receives more carries.

“I’m a rhythm back,” Jones said. “I need like five-plus carries to get going and then keep going on forward and forward.”

The 17 carries Jones received on Saturday registered a career high. His 57 rushing yards in the first quarter nearly matched his career-high for a game (59). Jones hadn’t been relied on that much since his days at Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy.

“I feel like I’m in high school,” Jones said. “Get a lot of carries, just repping and all that. Probably next week I’ll do the same thing and the week after that.”

Jones being a more productive runner than Armstrong shouldn’t be terribly surprising. He’s capable with solid blocking. But leading the team with 56 receiving yards? That’s more surprising.

Twice Wimbush found Jones out of the backfield matched up favorable against linebackers. Jones said his receiving gains were simply a product of Wimbush looking for him. Both running backs want to be seen as receiving threats too.

“Jafar’s fast and he’s physical, and I’m fast and physical,” Jones said. “You can just pick your poison with it.”

Defenses will have to stop Wimbush from running as well. He actually led the Irish in carries with 19. Those resulted in 84 yards and the one touchdown. Armstrong turned his 11 carries into 46 yards.

The Irish only threw for 135 yards and one touchdown against Vanderbilt, but it was enough to stay ahead after the early lead. The formula is pretty simple in Jones’ mind.

“If we rush good,” he said, “then we’ll win.”

It’s an equation worth testing moving forward.

Notre Dame’s Tony Jones Jr. runs the ball against Vanderbilt at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.