No matter what their predominant skill may be, today's running back must be a versatile playmaker in the NFL. There's no two ways about it.
The "every-down back" tag used to mean that a guy was able to pass-block decently and then take a swing pass once in a while. Now, backs are asked to run inside and outside in more complicated blocking schemes, pass-block to whatever degree (though this is slightly less important than it used to be with the increase in three- and five-step drops) and line up all along the formation as a true receiving threat.
Running back? Yes. But to present absolute value to his NFL team, young backs must be able to do it all. In 2017, rookie backs Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints proved the value of the new paradigm. Hunt led the NFL in rushing yards with 1,327, but he also caught 53 passes for 455 yards. Kamara was even more versatile, taking his 120 rushing attempts for 728 yards and eight touchdowns and adding 81 receptions for 826 yards and five more scores.
In the 2018 draft class, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is considered the most dynamic playmaker by most analysts, but USC's Ronald Jones shouldn't have to take too much of a backseat.
A standout at McKinney North High in Texas, Jones went on to break Charles White's freshman rushing record at USC, totaling 987 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on just 153 carries—despite the fact that he didn't start a single game.
The track star flaunted his game-breaking speed in 2016, rushing for 1,082 yards in a handful of starts. That led to his 2017 campaign—his only one as USC's true starting running back—in which he gained 1,550 yards and scored 19 touchdowns on the ground. Measured at 5'11" and 200 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jones doesn't look like a prototypical power back, but he can surprise with his ability to bust through contact, like in this run against Ohio State's outstanding defense last season.
Plays like this are where Jones shows a speed and balance rivaling any back in this class, and it's why so many teams are interested in his services. He says that since the combine, he's had visits with the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys.
When I talked with him earlier this week about his game tape and NFL potential, he had just flown into Philadelphia to meet with the Eagles. It's a process Jones is excited about.
"You're definitely working with the best, no matter where you go," he said.
The buzz around Jones may have been even greater had he not suffered a hamstring injury during combine drills, which forced him to postpone his own pro day workout in front of evaluators. USC quarterback Sam Darnold flew back from a visit with the Cleveland Browns to throw to Jones on April 5, which meant a lot to the running back.
"That was great," he said. "We've got this guy, presumably the No. 1 pick, and that just shows how he is. I needed him, and just like on the field, he was there for me and our teammates. To have him come back and do that for me was great, and it was a testament to how great a guy he is off the field."
As much as Jones did in college, with only one full season of starting experience, he could still be seen as a developmental prospect. He's grown a lot as a player, but there's still more to be learned.
"My football IQ and overall awareness of the game," Jones said when asked what he's learned at USC that he didn't know before. "Especially last season, I felt a big growth in that department. I was able to read defenses better and understand gaps—where defenses are trying to fill holes and where blitzes are coming from. Things like that. I added muscle in the offseason, and it helped being the full-time [starting] running back. All those things went hand in hand."
Jones' tape will certainly help his case. We went through a few plays from last season to further uncover the player who might be the most explosive back in this class, especially if he's used all over the field—and more progressively than he was used at USC, where he was often asked to bull it up the middle when bouncing outside would have been the way to go.
Play 1: USC vs. Texas, 5:33 left in the first quarter
Bleacher Report: This two-play sequence against Texas where you're stopped short of the end zone is frustrating to watch in that you're going right up the middle on a repeated basis. Take me through these calls and what the thought process was.
Ronald Jones II: That first one…man. We're running to the right, and like you said, they've got more guys in the box than we can block. We went "Ditto" there again [on the second play], and that was the fourth down there. "Ditto" is the call to the offense to just run the same play again. So, we did that, and I'm just trying to stick it in there—I'm fighting, and I did not get across the goal line. Watching the play over again, I definitely could have bounced the play to the left. That's another reason I'm still sick about this. That score would have made a difference in the game, instead of having to go to double overtime.
B/R: With the "Ditto" call, is it easier for a goal-line defense to read and react to two runs up the middle than if they have to deal with something else on the second play?
Jones: Not necessarily, it's just something we call with the offense if we feel that a play will have success. At that point on the field, we're expecting to punch it in, but I just didn't get it in, and like I said, I'm still sick about that one. I could have walked in if I'd bounced it outside. If you look at the Ohio State game, we had the exact same run call and I took it outside where there was no defender.
B/R: Yeah. You've got a ton of blockers, but Texas is pinching so hard inside. If you take a jab step outside, you're gone.
Jones: Yeah…thank God we won the game [27-24 in double overtime]; otherwise, that play would have stuck with me [even more].
Play 2: USC vs. Texas, end of the first half
B/R: Great run after the catch here. What's the route call for you, and do you stick with it, or are you altering it to Sam Darnold's movement?
Jones: This is actually one of our "Hail Mary" plays—we call this one "Save the Game." I'm really supposed to be leaking [running his route] all the way to the end zone, trailing the receivers and trying to catch a tipped ball. But I noticed that the linebacker [Anthony Wheeler, No. 45] didn't go out [on the route] with me and they were running man coverage about six deep. I was open, so I'm like, "I'm just going to trickle down here." Sam didn't want to take a chance throwing to the end zone, so he dumped it down to me. The defenders were all on the right side of the field, so I just cut the thing back and [receiver] Steven Mitchell [No. 4] had a great crack-back block. Then, it was just off to the races.
B/R: So, when you get to the third level past Wheeler and you're reading all these defenders, the first thing I noticed is that you almost fell down when you made your first cut.
Jones: Yeah, I had an ankle injury in this game, and I missed the following week. I don't know if it was bugging me there, but that was a pretty sharp cut.
B/R: After that, it's just speed against speed, and you must have a lot of confidence in your ability to just get free from defenders.
Jones: Oh yeah, I love taking it to the edge. That's one of the things I do well.
B/R: You've mentioned Jamaal Charles as a guy whose style you look up to—as a player you mirror. This is kind of a Jamaal Charles play.
Jones: Yeah, I'd agree with you [laughs].
B/R: That ability to decide on the fly to change your route based on the coverage—you didn't get a lot of receptions in your collegiate career, but receiving ability in a young running back is of paramount importance in the modern NFL. If your pro team wanted you flaring out more as opposed to running most of the time, would you be good with that?
Jones: Oh yeah, most definitely. You get those matchups with defensive backs, they're not as physical. When you're matched up with the linebackers, you've just got to win and beat them with speed. I want to help my team any way possible.
B/R: What kind of route tree did you run at USC? How advanced was the route palette for a running back in that offense?
Jones: On a regular basis? Probably five to six; it wasn't too deep. We had the wheel route, swing route, stop route, check over the ball and we had a couple of option routes. We had pretty standard packages.
B/R: So, the "Hail Mary" was unusual for you?
Jones: [Laughs] Yeah.
Play 3: USC vs. Stanford, 2:10 left in the second quarter
B/R: You're known as a speed guy, and as a smaller guy, you're not necessarily talked about as a power back in any capacity, though you do break contact on tape. This screen against Stanford shows a couple of things: first, your patience to fake the block and be in position for the pass, and second, how you explode through contact. How do you generate power with your frame?
Jones: At my size, you're generating that power through speed. Coach [Clay Helton] always says, "Low man wins," and that's through contact. I try to use my legs to run through those tacklers and anyone who's trying to hit me. I think that's a credit to the blasters [runs] we always did at practice.
B/R: On a play like this, are your screens like they would be in a West Coast offense, where everything is very precise and you're timing your steps to the dropback, or is it more "Get to your spot and go?"
Jones: We're more depending on the guard on this particular screen, counting "One thousand two, one thousand three" and I go where the guard goes.
B/R: Right, and the right guard [Viane Talamaivao, No. 60] misses the block on Alijah Holder, the cornerback [No. 13]. So you have to beat it anyway.
Jones: Yeah. [Laughs]
Play 4: USC vs. Stanford, 0:31 left in the first quarter
B/R: I think this really speaks to your explosiveness and how hard it is to stop you once you get rolling outside. Darnold's reading the end, faking the sneak and you have an easy touchdown off this look.
Jones: That's a speed option. Great play by [Darnold influencing] that defender, and that's one of the easiest touchdowns of the year. Just walking that in.
B/R: Yeah, he's got two defenders locked on him, which makes it easy.
Jones: That was easy money right there; we call that "Cake."
B/R: When you look at the current NFL with backfield motion and RPO concepts evolving, are you champing at the bit to see what you can so with all that?
Jones: Oh yeah. You know, with all these teams, they're coming up with different ways to utilize their guys with what they're doing now. It's got me licking my chops because I'll get a whole new route tree and different runs and all that. I just want to be a playmaker at the next level.
I concluded by asking Jones if, despite the presence of Barkley and LSU's Derrius Guice, he considered himself the best running back in this class. His answer was definitive.
"I'd say I am. You know my skills, you know my potential. I still have a lot to improve. I can score at any given time from anywhere on the field. My lateral agility and quickness and burst. I like the ball in my hand in clutch situations—just those elements."
It's the elements of Jones' game that remain unrealized that make him such a compelling prospect. He caught just 32 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns in his collegiate career, but that 56-yard touchdown against Texas showed that he understands what a quarterback needs in an open receiver, and how Jones himself can blow a defense up when he's in free space. I'm guessing a few NFL offensive coordinators could find uses for that. Judging by his visit schedule, teams seem to agree.
As an occasional inside runner and frequent outside playmaker, Ronald Jones could provide the same production as a Saquon Barkley over time, but with far less collegiate hype. That relative lack of recognition and experience plays into the favor of his eventual NFL team, as Jones most likely stands to be a late first-round or early second-round pick. But when you watch the tape and project Jones into a more expansive and creative system, it's relatively easy to picture him as the Alvin Kamara to Barkley's Kareem Hunt.
And there's nothing wrong with following in the footsteps of either of those guys.