Everyone was waiting for it. USC football fans had been calling for it. Pundits had been asking about it. Saturday night against Arizona, it happened.
Freshman sensation Ronald Jones II not only became the focal point of the Trojans’ offense, he might as well have grabbed the role of feature back by the scruff of the neck, without any intentions of giving it back.
Jones set a school record for rushing yards by a freshman with 177 yards on 19 carries.
That included a highlight-reel 74-yard touchdown run with 9:24 left in the game, in which he stiff armed one defender and bounced off of another. The score would stand as the game-winner in USC’s 38-30 win over Arizona at the Coliseum.
The 19 carries were a season high, after interim head coach Clay Helton had made it clear during the week that Jones had to improve in all areas of his game to get the playing time so many had called for.
Saturday night proved that he was turning the corner.
“He’s becoming a more complete player by the day,” Helton said. “As special as the [touchdown] run was, what I was more proud of was him catching the ball in the flat and scoring the touchdown.”
Jones had his first career reception in the second quarter, a five-yard catch that tied the game for the Trojans. It was enormous, not just for Jones, but for USC.
Arizona jumped out to the 14-0 lead on the back of an awful start that saw the Trojans gain just 15 yards in the first quarter. They started clicking in the second quarter as they repeatedly have under Helton, and Jones’s touchdown catch sent USC to the halftime break even.
Nov 7, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans tailback Ronald Jones II (25) carries the ball against the Arizona Wildcats at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
“I can finally get off the JUGS machine, hopefully for a couple of weeks,” Jones joked after the game.
Pass catching had been a big focal point for Jones, along with pass protection. While in high school at home in McKinney, Tex., he hadn’t done either, which naturally created an uphill battle for the freshman.
Don’t think for a second that his teammates haven’t noticed.
“That’s the one thing about Ronald,” Justin Davis teased. “He might be really, really good but he’s got a couple of things to work on.”
It’s altogether created a character on the Trojans roster that feels almost like a football version of Manny Ramirez.
Jones is a ridiculous home run hitting talent, putting up video game numbers, all while being a quirky, BBQ-loving Texan whom his teammates can’t stop talking about with simultaneous jest and awe.
Safety John Plattenburg started laughing and shaking his head when asked about him on Saturday night. Linebacker Su’a Cravens just grinned.
“He doesn’t even know how good he is,” Davis said. “He’s a future All-American. The sky’s the limit and he’s going to be great in the future.”
And the thing is, for as young as Jones is, the future might not even be that far away. He’s already in the record books and drawing comparisons to some of the game’s greats.
“He reminds me of the Roger Craig days,” Helton said. “His legs explode on contact, especially through that first level, and then in the second level, just watch out because it’s hard to catch him.”
For Cravens, it’s Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, which Jones himself agrees with.
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“I try to model myself after Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson,” Jones said. “Jamaal’s from Texas, so I watched him as a Longhorn in that Rose Bowl. I’ve been watching him all my life, basically.”
As the kinks continue to be worked out in his game, Jones will continue to take the next steps in what looks to be a promising career, much like Charles was able to.
But as the holder of one school record, it’s another Charles that stands as a tangible goal in the short term. That’s USC legend Charles White, who holds the freshman rushing record of 858 yards in season, which he did in 1976.
Jones sits at 710 yards through nine games. It’s not a matter of when he’ll break it, but how.
Is it going to be one of those long 60-yard trips to the house? Will he be stutter-stepping to the right and then bursting back to the left through the hole as he gets the yards needed?
Knowing Jones and how he plays, probably. No one would want it any other way and his teammates will give him grief for it no matter how it happens.
That’s Ronald being Ronald.