Notre Dame's Tony Jones Jr. provides change of pace to starting RB Jafar Armstrong

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Something clicked when the two met in January of 2017.

Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. had just finished his freshman season. He welcomed a wide receiver out of Mission (Kan.) Bishop Miege taking an official recruiting visit in late January, days before National Signing Day.

Jones wasn’t surprised the three-star recruit wavered on his original verbal commitment to Missouri. Or that he pledged to the Irish following his Jan. 27-29 trip.

What Jafar Armstrong craved aligned with Jones’ desires.

“We wanted the same things,” said Jones, who now refers to Armstrong as ‘Far. “We wanted a degree, we wanted something past sports. We just connected.”

The two shared the same backfield last season, with now-NFL rookie Dexter Williams, following Armstrong’s position switch to running back. Williams ended up ND’s leading rusher in 2018, despite missing the first four games of that season because of a university-imposed suspension.

Armstrong’s transition proved to be successful enough for him to project as ND’s starter heading into this season. The junior is not the sole featured back, however. The Irish plan to use the differing skill sets of Armstrong and Jones in concert this season.

Jones is in line to receive a sizable share of the workload, though he’s not officially the No. 1 back. He’s content with that distinction.

“Me and ‘Far are going to be a great 1-2 punch,” said Jones, a senior. “It’s going to be hard for teams to stop.”

At 5-foot-11, 224 pounds, Jones does not possess the straight line-speed or elusiveness of the 6-1, 220-pound Armstrong. Jones’ running style is more bruising. He’s also one who can pass-protect, catch out of the backfield or line up on special teams.

One play from Jones during the scrimmage portion of Saturday’s practice stood out to head coach Brian Kelly. Quarterback Ian Book connected with wide receiver Chris Finke on a pass across the middle to convert on a third down. Without Jones picking up the blitzing linebacker, Book would not have had enough time to make the throw.

“I know it doesn’t sell subscriptions,” Kelly said, “but he does for coaches a lot of the little things that help you win football games. That is Tony Jones. Jafar obviously has a skill set that maybe has a brighter light to it at times.

“Both of those together make for a really fine tandem.”

The Irish have frequently rotated the duo with their first-team offense throughout preseason training camp under first-year running backs coach Lance Taylor.

“You are supposed to think that you are never coming out,” Jones said. “Coach Taylor tells us to always be ready. If you sit on the sideline and think that you are not going to get in, then you will go in and not be ready.

“Coach tells us to always be ready and think that you are the starter.”

Jones might not have found himself in this position had it not been for his past two offseasons. From the time he signed with Notre Dame to his sophomore season, Jones gained 20 pounds. It wasn’t exactly all good weight either.

As a 230-pounder, Jones struggled with his flexibility and durability. He didn’t quite have the bend that he possessed as a three-star recruit (Rivals and 247 Sports) out of Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy. Maintaining health near 100 percent seemed unattainable for Jones.

The 2018 offseason changed that. An improved diet, weekly yoga and increased stretching helped Jones play in all 13 games last season. Jones adopted a similar routine over the past several months, but with higher intensity.

“I have to stay limber as a running back,” Jones said. “It’s more in-depth with the things I need for myself. I work hard on it. There are times I don’t want to do it, and I have to still do it.”

That included completing yoga sessions following the draining rigmarole of workouts, school, practice and studying. Jones partook in either yoga from an app on his phone or from clips his dad sent him. He wished to complete each session alone in his dorm room at night.

That’s because he was trying to avoid teasing from his teammates.

“They call me fat back,” Jones said of his teammates, particularly the offensive linemen. “They call me Cheeto-head, because of my dreads. Just sly jokes that are funny to the team.

“I’m like their little brother. I get picked on, because I’m short. They make fun of me. They fight me. They do jokes together. It’s a tight bond.”

The mockery might remind Jones of a tattoo located on his upper right arm. Two theater masks are beside each other — one crying and the other laughing. It stems from an insult Jones received from his brother — who also has the tattoo — throughout childhood.

“My brother used to say that I was a crybaby,” Jones said. “He told me, ‘Stop crying. Laugh now, cry later.’ ”

Jones enters this season as the unofficial No. 2 back, though he doesn’t seem to care at the moment. Any crying will have to come later.

“I can’t be worried about myself when I need to be worried about the team,” Jones said. “I do anything that the team wants me to do. I play special teams — I do all that. It really doesn’t matter. I’ll go hard.”

Tony Jones Jr. (6) runs with the football during Notre Dame football practice at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.