It’s the question on everyone’s mind: Why hasn’t Ronald Jones II received more carries?
The true freshman has been among USC’s brightest players throughout the 2015 season. He leads the team in yards on the ground, rushing average and touchdowns.
Yet Jones has the lowest attempts per game of the Trojans’ three-man rotation featuring veteran figures Justin Davis and Tre Madden.
After announcing himself with a pair of 44-yard scampers in USC’s first two games of the season, Jones provided the spark for the offense on an off day against Washington by rushing for 39 yards and a touchdown on three straight carries early in the fourth quarter.
Yet after that point he touched the ball just twice as the Trojans were upset at home in Steve Sarkisian’s final game as the head coach.
On the road in South Bend it was much of the same story. Jones broke free for a 65-yard run which set up the touchdown to put USC up 31-24 against Notre Dame in the third quarter.
Yet he would receive all of two carries for the remainder of the game, none in the final and decisive quarter, when the Irish scored 17 unanswered points to win the game 41-31.
The outcomes against Utah and Cal were much more positive for the Trojans, yet both games ended with the same questions about Jones’ usage. Though he had a season-high 15 attempts versus the Utes, he was clearly USC’s most effective rusher, but not the most used.
In a much more contested outing against the Bears, Jones generated 80 yards and a touchdown. Despite an average of 7.27 yards per carry, he touched the ball just 11 times. Madden and Davis ran the ball 14 and 15 times respectively, with the latter averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry.
During and after the 27-21 victory, the question came louder and more forceful than ever, from fans, from local media and even national media who say perplexed: Why hasn’t Jones received more carries?
Interim head coach Clay Helton had a simple answer for that question specific to the Cal game.
October 24, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Ronald Jones II (25) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Utah Utes during the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
“We went into the game … with Utah really wanting [Jones] to have 15 touches. He got 15,” said Helton. “I was hoping for the same for this game — 15 plus touches — [but] the knee scared me just a little bit.”
Turns out, Jones was dealing with a bit of soreness in his knee. What he gained, he gained toughing out the injury.
“He fought through it and did a great job,” said Helton.
Of course, so did Madden, who has been dealing with nagging injuries throughout the season. Madden’s knee concerns did not limit his 14 carries.
So what is the real answer? Why hasn’t Jones received more carries really?
The passing game.
As a freshman, Jones has mastered the easiest part of his role as a running back — the actually running the ball part. However, he remains green on the more complex aspects of the position.
On Sunday evening, Helton praised Madden and Davis for taking Jones under their wings this season, to help him settle into the college game.
“[They’ve] really helped him come along and try to develop him into a complete football player, one that’s understanding pass protections, becoming better in pass protections, becoming a better route runner and catcher,” said Helton.
The head coach’s words say it all between the lines. Jones is USC’s best runner, but not the Trojans’ best running back.
“Is [Jones] a complete player yet? He’s working extremely hard at it to become one.”
But he’s not there yet.
USC relies on their running backs to do more than run. They must be reliable in pass protection and they must present themselves as viable receiving options. If a player is not proficient in all three facets of the position, then his opportunities to see the field are going to be more limited than those who are capable of doing it all.
Madden and Davis have been practicing these things for years. Jones has been at it for two months. He told Michael Lev of the OC Register that he did no pass protection or receiving in high school, so this is completely new to him.
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It is no knock on Jones that he has yet to perfect those aspects of the game. He is a freshman still finding his feet in the complexities of the college level.
All that is required is a touch of patience.
“He’s going to progress as a player,” Helton said. “He’s going to do great things here and his role is going to increase with each game.”
If it does, as nearly everyone around USC wants and expects, Jones may have the chance to achieve what no Trojan freshman has done since 1976 when future Heisman-winner Charles White set the school record for freshman rushing yards at 858.
Jones has 533 and would need to average just 81 yards in each of USC’s final four games to take the record for himself.