November 29, 2017, published on Bleacher Report/BleacherReport.com
USC has the ball, 1st-and-goal at the 2-yard line with fewer than six minutes to go against UCLA. Quarterback Josh Rosen and the Bruins have cut the lead to 21-17.
Sam Darnold hands the ball off to Ronald Jones II, the Trojans’ 6-foot, 200-pound tailback, who clutches the ball tight, ducks his head down and pummels his way through much bigger linemen.
Even as one would-be tackler grabs him at the knees, Jones grinds his way out of the pile and into the end zone for his second touchdown and what turns out to be the winning score. He finished with 122 rushing yards on 28 carries in the Trojans’ (10-2) 28-23 victory.
“You can’t just hit him or knock him down, because he’ll just bounce up and go through you,” said Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, whose team fell victim to a 25-yard Jones burst the previous week. On the play, Jones escaped not one, not two, but three defenders and even carried one on his back for five yards before shedding him for another 15, as if to scream, “WEIGHT ROOM!”
So who is Rojo, the tackle-breaking back from McKinney, Texas, who is suddenly rising on NFL draft boards, and whose 16 touchdowns rank seventh nationally and tie for first in the Pac-12? A player who has so much North-South explosion, bringing him to top speed after his first cut, that his teammates call him the Texas Tesla?
“A nightmare for defensive coordinators to prepare for,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “A special player who is right up there with the best running backs in the nation.”
“He’s got horse legs,” said Stephen Carr, another Trojans back. “It’s going to take a couple of body shots to take him down.”
“He’s got great potential,” said an NFC scout. “He’s what you want: dynamic.”
“Once he sees a hole and he hits it,” teammate Aca’Cedric Ware said, “there’s no catching him.”
Jones is averaging 122.4 rushing yards per game. After an offseason in which he added 10 pounds, the junior has jumped to No. 6 in USC all-time rushing yards. He’s surpassed Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Mike Garrett and needs just nine yards to pass O.J. Simpson.
“Coming out of high school, they said I was too small,” Jones said. “They said I wouldn’t be able to run between the tackles. I just kept that in the back of my mind. I’m just out here to prove people wrong.”
JONES DOESN’T SEEM LIKE the type to cut your heart out, but he did it against Washington State with a vicious 86-yard TD run.
He pauses mid-interview to smile and wave to a group of parents: “Hello, how are you doing?” He answers questions: “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” He collects food items and gives them to the homeless he sees around campus. Just once in his academic life has he found himself in trouble at school (one morning he forgot his belt and his pants sagged).
He felt lost last season after he decided to cut his customary dreadlocks (they were back this season before a Thanksgiving break trim). He had everyone howling at last year’s team New Year’s party, when he imitated former running backs coach Tommie Robinson on stage (Jones acted out Robinson barking out drills, saying he ‘would make a man out of them.’) He calls his mother by her first name, Jackie, when he senses she needs a pick-me-up.
But don’t be fooled: Jones is as hard-nosed as they come. His father, Ronald Sr., a 27-year Army veteran who served as a drill sergeant and a logistics specialist, instilled discipline. Ronald Sr. would inspect his son’s room, mandating he organize the shirts in his closet by color, and he would set up a homework schedule and chore list. He taught his son to mow the lawn and to respect all men but fear none.
Ronald Sr. was the one who handed Jones a football at age six. He adjusted Jones’ shoulder pads. He started Jones’ epic Super Bowl patch collection. He gave him pointers while the two watched every Cowboys game on the couch—a velvet red piece with black leather accents in the living room upstairs.
He took seven-year-old Ronald Jr. to his first Cowboys game against Washington. The family went down to the railings as Ronald Sr. hollered at Eddie George and Julius Jones to come over. It was Thanksgiving Day, but it felt like Christmas. Little Ronald grinned and waved, but he was too excited and too shy to say anything, so he hid behind his father. It was the sweetest moment of his young life.
During Ronald Jr.’s sophomore year of high school, Ronald Sr. died of a heart attack.
Jones wasn’t sure how to press on. He stayed away from McKinney North High, and from the turf, for two weeks, hardly leaving his room. Coco, his Yorkshire Terrier, also died that year. His sister Montinique had never seen her brother cry as a teenager until their father’s funeral.
“It hurt me more to see Ronald hurt than it hurt to lose my dad,” she said. “It was tough on all of us, but it was really tough on Ronald.”
When Jones found himself struggling to find his footing his first two years USC, stuck behind a deep, veteran running backs group that included Justin Davis, he remembered his father. He knew he had to keep grinding.
“He told me to never give up on myself,” Jones said.
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING to go?” Mike Fecci, Jones’ coach at McKinney North, asked him the morning of the Under Armour All-America Game in their hotel lobby in Orlando, Florida. Jones, a senior, was to announce his college decision later that day.
“I’m going to SC,” Jones said.
Fecci laughed. He’d seen Jones explode up the field since his days at Dowell Middle School, back when he looked like an alien—all arms and legs. Jones’ speed and skills weren’t the issue.
“You’re going to a place where you’re going to have a few backs,” Fecci said. “You know that, right?”
“Yes sir, I do,” Jones said. “But it’s the best place for me.”
Jones wanted to be tested, and he would be. At first, he trailed behind Davis and Tre Madden. He respected them, he learned from them and he sought to outwork them.
“I think it was just him knowing his role,” Montinique said. “Like, ‘This is where I gotta start. I gotta start my way at the bottom and make my way to the top.'”
He was electric at times, setting the USC freshman rushing record (987 yards) while adding eight touchdowns (nine total). But he was homesick and wanted to transfer to a school closer to home.
“Nope,” Jackie told her son. “You’re going to stick it out.” Whatever Jackie says, goes. Back when her son was McKinney’s “big man on campus,” not to mention one of the nation’s top prospects, she didn’t let him drive his 2013 Dodge Challenger to school, about three miles away, for a whole week. He was grounded for teasing his little sister, Shauna.
He had to find a means to get to school then (the school bus). And he’d have to find a way to make USC work now. “You’re meant to be there,” Jackie said. “Stay focused. Do the work. Stay put.”
Jones struggled early in his sophomore campaign but gained momentum toward the second half of the season and finished with 1,082 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns (13 total). But he wasn’t satisfied. “He felt like he was in a sophomore slump,” Jackie said.
He’d have to break through. Again.
Few expected Jones to be a football player in the first place. He was supposed to be a track star, taking after his grandfather, Charles Dockery, who ran track for Texas Southern University from 1963-64.
Jones excelled as a 100-meter sprinter from age five throughout high school. He even competed in a few meets at USC as a freshman before dropping the sport.
“He had this ability to not just maneuver and find an open space, but he was able to pull away from people,” McKinney North track coach Melvin Crosby said. “The kid had something a little different than everybody else.”
When he began playing Pop Warner football, Jones was so much smaller than the other kids that he was an afterthought—a bench-warmer. That burned him.
“Don’t worry,” Jackie told Jones. “You’ll play.”
In his first year at McKinney, he played on the freshman team. The second, he played behind two older backs, Trey Smith and Justin Jones, on varsity. Then, his father died, which set him back.
He finally got his shot when he returned to action, as Smith was sidelined with a broken collarbone. Jones exploded for 205 yards on 12 carries and four TDs against Denison High in the final game of the season. He didn’t even start.
“He doesn’t crave the limelight,” Fecci said. “He was never one to say, ‘Hey, look at me, look at what I’m doing.’ He’s business oriented. Very quiet. A methodical player. But when he gets the ball in his hands, he becomes the most confident guy in the world.”
Jones also waited his turn at USC. He labored at his weaknesses this offseason: catching and pass protection. He bulked up in the weight room.
It’s paid dividends this season, most notably against Arizona State, when Jones had a season-high 216 rushing yards.
“He’s more decisive running through holes, and I think that has to do with the reads we’ve put in place,” said USC running backs coach Deland McCullough. “He can play a lot faster because he’s not filling holes as he goes.”
Jones still isn’t satisfied. “I’m still trying to get bigger,” he said. “No one’s ever a finished product. I’m going to keep grinding.”
He looks to a tattoo on his right bicep for motivation. It’s an image of his father, whose face is surrounded by clouds. Before every game, Jones runs with his teammates to the back of the end zone. He says a prayer to his father, asking for protection, victory and to honor his name. On Veterans Day this year, after scoring against Colorado, Jones pointed toward the sky and gave a military salute to honor Ronald Sr.
Montinique smiles when watching her brother stand on the sideline, a spitting image of their father: same bulging calf muscles, same hips slightly poked to the side, same chiseled arms. No one says he looks too small anymore.