Rhythm, flow: USC RB Ronald Jones is finally in a groove

(Photo: USA TODAY Sports)

There’s a certain rhythm to football, and recently Ronald Jones II is running in tune.

Since the sophomore running back rushed for a total of 208 yards over his first six games – three of them losses for the Trojans – he’s exploded for 471 yards over his last three. A year after Jones set USC’s 39-year-old freshman running record, the nation’s No. 1 back in the 2015 class per 247Sports is back again.

Why?

It comes down to opportunities. In USC’s first six games Jones averaged 7.6 carries per game. Jones is averaging 18 over the last three games, including a career-high 20 against Oregon last week. Touches breed comfort, and when that happens Jones’ sprinter-like speed tends to emerge.

“Your blood is going and it gets you into a rhythm,” Jones told 247Sports this week. “As a runner you know you keep taking the five- or six-yard gains you’ll get those 50 yard runs eventually. That’s what’s been happening lately.”

Over Jones’ last two games against California and Oregon he’s rushed for gains of 61, 42, 23, 66 and 31 yards in addition to five total touchdowns and 19.7 yards per carry.

The back that ran for back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons at McKinney North High School in Texas is beginning to emerge from the early-season muck.

"He was one of those kids that the more he gets the better he gets," said McKinney North head coach Mike Fecci. "We figured that out kind of early in his junior season. You have to feed it to him a bunch. The more he gets, the stronger he gets."

Jones, who will be critical in No. 20 USC’s road matchup this week with No. 4 Washington, started slow in Week 1 as Alabama stymied the entire USC offense. Then Jones bruised his ribs the next week against Utah State. It’s an injury that hampered him until two weeks ago following USC’s bye week.

Senior tailback Justin Davis took over the majority rushing load while Jones nursed his injury. With Davis runs and a quarterback switch the Trojans surged. Davis, the leader of the USC running backs room, averaged 9.2 yards per carry over a three-game stretch against Utah, Arizona State and Colorado before he suffered an ankle injury of his own.

After Davis went down, running backs coach Tommie Robinson approached Jones to tell him the Trojans were counting on him.

It’s an opportunity Jones thirsted for.

“I just knew I was going to be starter,” Jones said. “That gave me a little confidence with the coaches believing in me. I’m just trying to make a name.”

A particular name, former USC star Reggie Bush, is the reason Jones sacrificed Whataburger from his native Texas to attend USC. As it happens, Jones’ 394-yard total over the last two games is the most for a Trojans running back in consecutive games since Bush ran for 554 yards against Fresno State and UCLA in 2005.

But even Bush, a Heisman Trophy winner (sort of), never rushed for four touchdowns in a single game.

“It’s an honor,” Jones said. “There have been a lot of great running backs to come in here before me.”

Part of Jones’ success can be traced to the defenses he’s faced; both Oregon (116th nationally) and California (dead last) are horrendous against the run. Yet the explosion is also a credit to the way the Trojans are playing.

USC has stacked up five straight wins since a 1-3 start, and its offensive line, which ranked as the top unit nationally this preseason according to Phil Steele, is starting to dominate. That’s helped the unit as a whole with freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who took over for Max Browne after three games, playing brilliantly – 68 percent passing and 20 touchdowns vs. 4 interceptions.

Jones is quick to credit Darnold and his blockers, but his runs are equally as important. Davis is expected to return this week against Washington, but he’s told USC head coach Clay Helton not to sap touches from Jones as not to break his cadence.

“You know as a coach that there’s a ticking time bomb ready to go off,” Helton said of Jones last Saturday. “With the talent he has and the competitiveness he has, you know he was getting ready to explode.”

The undefeated Huskies are a perilous obstacle to Jones’ tempo. Still, if Washington’s No. 11-ranked defense is vulnerable somewhere it’s on the ground. The Huskies are 13th nationally allowing 182 yards per game through the air, but all but two of its opponents this year has eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground, including three teams (Arizona, Oregon and Utah) going over 200 yards.

Healthy, Jones claims there isn’t much that’s changed during his explosive stretch. Except for the fact he's found his flow. 

“We started off behind all the teams in the Pac-12, and now we’re on a five-game winning streak which is great,” Jones said. “We look forward to playing Washington this week.

“We’re just in a good rhythm.”

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