FAB 3. A Bigger, Better RoJo
Confidence is key when it comes to performance in the workplace, and if a football player lacks confidence on the gridiron it can lead to a very short career in the NFL.
After rushing for just 44 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries (1.9 avg.) in 2018, Bucs running back Ronald Jones II looks like a brand new runner, brimming with confidence while rushing for 234 yards and a touchdown, while averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Jones should have even more yards as he had runs of 25 yards and 54 yards in his return to the L.A. Coliseum in last week’s 55-40 win over the Rams called back due to two holding calls.
“Yeah, don’t get me started on those two calls,” head coach Bruce Arians said.
Tampa Bay’s offensive line has done a great job of run blocking this year, paving the way for Jones and Peyton Barber. Jones finished the game with 70 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries (3.7 avg.) a week after rushing for 80 yards on 14 carries (5.7 avg.) against the Giants.
“It felt good because the O-line did a great job of getting that push against a great defensive front,” Jones said. “I felt good. I got comfortable and got into a rhythm. It means a lot to be out there for the last, end-of-the-game situations. To get that run that put us in field goal position, it was a great feeling. It was great being back in Cali, too.”
The run Jones is talking about was a 24-yarder in the fourth quarter in which he ran outside towards the sideline, but wisely stayed in bounds to keep the clock running. A few plays later, Matt Gay hit a field goal to extend the Bucs’ 45-40 lead to 48-40 with just under two minutes remaining.
But that 24-yard dash would have been his third-longest run of the day had the other two breakaway jaunts actually counted.
“That hurt,” Dotson said of the two holding calls that negated what could have been 79 more rushing yards for Jones. “RoJo is gaining confidence and I think the coaching staff is doing a good job of putting that confidence in his head, saying, ‘All we have to do is get a hat on a hat and with the guys we got running the ball they’re going to take care of the rest.’ It’s just putting so much confidence in that kid and you can see him growing from it. RoJo has the chance to be a good NFL back in this league. He just has to keep getting better and keep running like he’s running.”
Even though those negated runs don’t count on the stats sheet, Jones still ripped them off. They count in terms of building confidence in the fact that Jones can break off a 50-yard run, just like he did often in college at the Coliseum while playing at USC.
“It gives our team momentum,” Jones said. “I like making those big plays and being the one with the ball in my hands. It was good to see.”
Jones didn’t have much confidence last year because he didn’t have much room to run the ball behind an offensive line that struggled to open holes. But Jones had to do his part, too. He entered the league weighing 205 pounds and is now at 220 pounds after hitting the weight room and bulking up this past offseason. With more body armor this season, Jones has the strength to power through arm tackles and bounce off would-be tacklers for more yardage.
“It’s a great feeling and I have to give the credit to my trainer Luke Neal out in Arizona for getting me right,” Jones said. “I was running hills and building leg stamina and working on the little muscles – not the big muscles. The muscles that you don’t think you use on every down, but you do. The core muscles, getting some stamina in them, definitely helps late in games.”
The other confidence-builder in Jones’ corner is Bucs running backs coach Todd McNair, who coached Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush at USC.
“He was my idol,” Jones said of Bush. “Coach has made our reads easier and slowed the game down for us. He just tells us to go out and compete. He’s the man behind the player.”
While McNair worked on Jones’ hand placement for catching the ball, Neal worked on Jones’ pure catching ability.
“That’s a credit to Luke, having me work on my hand-eye coordination by catching little things like tennis balls all the time and bouncing them off the wall and catching them,” Jones said. “I tried to catch the ball sometimes and get up the field too fast last year. It was just a focus thing. I probably caught 2,000 balls this offseason and was running routes.”
Last year, Jones dropped his first NFL pass on a screen, which would have gone for a touchdown at Chicago, and finished the year with seven catches on nine targets for 33 yards. This season, Jones has three catches for 71 yards and has caught every ball thrown his way this season, including a 41-yard screen pass against the Giants and a 12-yard swing pass that picked up a first down in L.A. on Sunday.
After what could have been a 149-yard rushing performance against the Rams, what’s next for Jones? It seems like only a matter of time before he claims the Bucs’ starting running back role and gets his first 100-yard rushing performance, which could come as early as this Sunday in New Orleans, as he’s running with much more power and confidence thanks to a great offseason where he worked on his body and hands, and with better blocking upfront this year.