Tony Jones Jr. running happy in Notre Dame's lead running back role

Tyler James i South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Carrying the football always came with a cost for Tony Jones Jr.

His father, Tony Jones Sr., insisted that carries only went to players willing to block.

As the coach of his son’s youth football team, Tony Sr. could make those decisions. His tailbacks would have to line up at fullback too.

That made for an easy choice for Tony Jr. He was going to embrace blocking assignments.

“My dad had a rule if you didn’t block good, you couldn’t touch the ball,” Tony Jr. said. “So I always wanted to block good so I could get the ball.”

Countless blocks and carries have come since then. Now a senior running back at Notre Dame, the passion for blocking still resides in Tony Jr.

He knows it can come with a bruising. In the season opener against Louisville, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound Tony Jr. stepped in front of quarterback Ian Book to help protect him from the pass rush on Book’s only touchdown throw of the game: a 26-yard completion to tight end Tommy Tremble.

Tony Jr. stuck his nose into hard-charging defensive lineman Amonte Caban. The 6-1, 256-pound Caban broke free from left guard Aaron Banks and appeared to have a clear path to Book. That was until Tony Jr. put himself in harm’s way.

Tony Jr. doesn’t need to be reminded that he allowed Book to throw that touchdown pass. He remembers clearly.

“Yeah, I got hit hard on that one,” Tony Jr. said.

Wasn’t the first time. Won’t be the last.

Every block has the chance to be a triumph. It can also be an embarrassment.

Tony Jr. knows what both feel like. He also knows how he’s supposed to properly handle the block. But when the moment comes, the technique can be lost.

“It’s just your will to fight really,” Tony Jr. said. “In a game, all of that ‘You have to keep your hands inside, your feet square,’ all of that goes out the window when a man is running full speed at you. It’s out the window. You just have to fight.”

Tony Jr. has been able to find a role in Notre Dame’s offense since his sophomore season because of his willingness to do the dirty work.

He might not be the most explosive running back on Notre Dame’s roster. But Tony Jr. is a committed blocker. He’s a reliable pass catcher. He does his job.

Now he’s Notre Dame’s starting running back.

“I know it doesn’t sell subscriptions,” head coach Brian Kelly said in August, “but he does for coaches a lot of the little things that help you win football games. That is Tony Jones.”

Handling the workload

Tony Jones Sr. saw his son ask for a breather early in the Notre Dame-Louisville game.

The Irish trailed 14-7 in the first quarter when the offense took the field for its third drive of the game. The first four plays of the drive include three Tony Jones Jr. runs for 33 yards. But after the third run — a 15-yard gain — Tony Jr. motioned to the sideline to be replaced by sophomore running back Jahmir Smith.

With Tony Jr. on the bench for the next two plays, Book threw to wide receiver Lawrence Keys III for a five-yard completion and was sacked for a loss of eight yards. Smith was unable to get in front of the unblocked blitzer following a fake handoff.

When Tony Jr. returned, he ripped off a 35-yard run on third-and-13. After a one-yard loss on the next play, Tony Jr. punched in an 11-yard touchdown run to tie the game.

Tony Jr. finished the drive with six runs for 78 yards. With fellow running back Jafar Armstrong expected to be sidelined for several weeks recovering from a torn abdominal muscle, Tony Jr. may be relied on to carry the load on similar drives in the future.

“I’m more of a volume guy,” Tony Jr. said. “I need the ball a lot. Well, not a lot, but I need it three times. Then I start rolling, and then it’s hard to stop me after that.”

The repeated carries, Tony Jr. said, allows him to get a better sense of the lanes the offensive line will create for him and how the defense will react.

But Tony Jr. needs to be physically prepared to handle that kind of workload. After rushing seven times for 87 yards in the first quarter, Jones rushed for only 23 yards on seven carries in the final three quarters against Louisville.

Tony Sr. created a plan to better condition his son. He asked him to run 10 100-yard sprints at 75-percent speed with 25 seconds of rest in between each sprint every day after practice. Other members of the running back group and even running backs coach Lance Taylor have joined Tony Jr. for the post-practice sprints.

Tony Jr. said he felt fine in the days after the Louisville game. That was until he started cramping on the team flight back to South Bend.

The 15 carries in the Louisville game marked just the fourth time Tony Jr. has registered at least 10 carries in a game. His career highs in carries and rushing yards came in last year’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt: 17 carries for 118 yards.

Tony Jr. insists he can handle more than 17 carries. The Irish may choose to spread the workload if they can build a sizeable lead against New Mexico (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) Saturday.

But what’s the limit for Tony Jr.?

“As many,” he said, “as coach needs really.”

Run happy

Tony Jones Sr. makes a living in the fitness business.

Eight years ago, the former Illinois State running back became a franchise owner for Orangetheory Fitness. He’s now part of a franchise group that owns 59 locations in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

Through his business travels, Tony Sr. discovered wristbands created by Brooks Running with the phrase “run happy” stamped on them. He immediately thought of his son.

Most running backs would liked to be described as running angry. It’s a phrase often used to describe a running back that runs hard and isn’t easy to tackle.

But Tony Sr. believes his son runs better when he runs happy. Tony Jr. agrees. He wore two “run happy” wristbands — one on each arm — throughout last season. It fit perfectly for the running back who always seems to be smiling.

“I just thought it was something that he could put on his hands that once he’s playing in the game, he can remember the phrase of just run happy,” Tony Sr. said. “No need to be discouraged or upset about the past. The only thing you can do is get a fresh 24 (hours) the next day and just be happy about the opportunity you have to see another day and run happy.”

This year, Tony Jr. has replaced the “run happy” wristbands with ones that say “set the expectation.” It’s the rallying cry of Brenda Tracy’s campaign to combat sexual and physical violence in high school and college athletics. Tracy visited Notre Dame’s program in June to spread awareness.

“Because I want to be the 90 percent that helps the world to be better — for us men to treat women with respect,” Tony Jr. said of his choice to switch wristbands. “Also, it’s for the field too. To set the tone for the team.”

Tony Jr. still embraces the run happy motto too. It’s a welcome change from some of the frustration he dealt with throughout his career. Tony Jr. didn’t play as a freshman at Notre Dame. In his sophomore season, he suffered through a high-ankle sprain and a hip pointer.

Even in last year’s Stanford game, Tony Jr. had to exit early with an ankle injury. He finished his junior season with 83 rushing attempts for 392 yards and three touchdowns.

But during the season opener, Tony Sr. saw his son thriving.

“I saw a comfortable guy,” Tony Sr. said. “I saw a guy that was patient in his runs, letting his blocks set up. I saw a guy that was out there having fun and running happy. I think you get that when you go out there and just play.”

As parents, Tony Sr. and his ex-wife Natalie have always relied on their faith in the hopes of keeping Tony Jr. safe and healthy. When Tony Jr. first started playing football, Natalie prayed over her son while rubbing holy oil on his body.

“We’re divorced, but we fast and pray and take things away in our life during football season in exchange for safety for our son,” Tony Sr. said. “We have a praying family regardless of not being married and still together. It’s tremendous. It’s the reason sometimes we receive blessings.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff continues to show faith in Tony Jr. He’s an important part of the Irish offense moving forward.

Whether he’s the lead back or a complementary piece, Kelly knows what to expect from his most experienced running back.

“He’s assignment correct,” Kelly said. “He’s physical at the point of attack. He’s doing his job, and he’s being Tony Jones, and I kind of like that.”

Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. tends to play better with a smile on his face.
Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. rushed for 110 yards and one touchdown in the season opener against Louisville.