They told Ronald Jones he was too small.
They told him he was too weak.
They told him he couldn’t pound it between the tackles like a true workhorse running back.
The doubts leveled against Jones as a high school recruit still whisper in his ear as he hurtles into and around would-be tacklers. He did a lot of that for USC in 2017, totaling 1,550 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns en route to first-team All-America honors from Pro Football Focus. The aforementioned criticisms look foolish in hindsight, as Jones’s teammates now describe him as having “horse legs,” and draft analysts have lauded his physical running style.
But make no mistake—some scouts still have their doubts about Jones’s ability to be a three-down running back in the National Football League. To be honest, the man they call “RoJo” wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love the naysayers and love the doubters, and I’m just gonna keep proving them wrong until I’m done playing,” Jones said. If Jones has his way, he’ll be proving people wrong for a long, long time.
Jones grew up in the football-obsessed state of Texas, and discovered a love for the sport from an early age. Forbidden from playing tackle football until he turned 8 or 9 years old, he’d often wait for his older cousins to finish practice before playing pick-up ball with them. As in most families, little mercy was shown. “They were competitive—they didn’t show me any mercy, which I think is what made me grow up fast,” Jones said. “That’s where I got my competitive spirit and violence (on the field) from.”
In addition to football, Jones also had a passion for track. His grandfather, Charles Dockery, won a Texas state championship in the 100-yard dash before helping set a national relay record at Texas Southern University. Jones began competing in track when he was just 5 years old, and his skinny frame was better suited to that sport than football. In fact, Jones was a bench warmer during his first couple seasons of Pop Warner, largely due to the fact he was so much smaller than most of his teammates.
But Jones’s commitment to football never wavered, and the speed he built on the track soon became his calling card on the gridiron. While he didn’t receive significant playing time at McKinney North High School (McKinney, Dallas) until late in his sophomore season, RoJo made the most of his opportunities. When injury struck a back listed ahead of him on the depth chart before the final game of the season, Jones went off. He totaled 205 yards and four touchdowns on just 12 carries in the team’s finale. Thanks in large part to his breakneck speed, every one of those four touchdowns was over 49 yards.
The performance solidified Jones as an electrifying talent, and he quickly formulated a goal to get his name mentioned among the best running backs in the state. Texas is perennially ripe with elite running back talent, and Jones knew he’d have to post prolific stats to get noticed.
“I looked at the top running backs in Texas and all those guys were reaching 2,500 or 2,000 yards in a season. If you want to get the recognition in that state, you had to reach at least 2,000. So the goals I set in high school where 2,000 yards and at least 30 touchdowns (a season),” Jones says.
But there was more to that drive than just making a name for himself. It was about carrying on the legacy of the Ronald Jones name. RoJo is actually Ronald Jones II—his father was the original Ronald Jones. He was an army sergeant who instilled the values of discipline, academics and responsibility in a young Ronald, and he also fostered his love of football. While his father had been in and out of his son’s life since he and his mother, Jackie Jones, separated during his childhood, the younger RoJo always strived to make his father proud. During Ronald’s sophomore year at McKinney, his father suffered a fatal heart attack. It was a devastating event, and one that ultimately inspired Ronald to take lessons he’d learned from his father and use them to maximize his own potential.
“You always gave me the confidence that I could do anything, if I put my mind to it. Trust me, I will do my duty, just give me the strength. I am thankful for the time God did give us on this Earth,” Jones wrote in his father’s eulogy. “It is now up to me to carry on the Jones name and I promise to do everything in my power to make you proud, until we meet again.”
As Jones took on a bigger role in the backfield at McKinney High, he did the same at home. Jackie was struggling to raise Jones and his three younger siblings on her own, so the teenaged Ronald stepped up as the man of the house. He took it upon himself to help prepare dinners and shuttle his younger siblings around town. He also started taking his academics more seriously and dedicated himself to becoming the best student-athlete he could be. Jones had a breakout junior season for McKinney North, totaling 2,406 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns. RoJo was right—those numbers certainly got him noticed. His exposure soared as he became the top-ranked running back in the state of Texas prior to his senior year. While such a rapid ascent could instill a brash cockiness into some young athletes, Jones remained humble.
“What sets him apart is he does things right,” Mike Fecci, Jones’s head coach at McKinney North, told NewsOK in 2014. “He just wants to be another guy, and because of that his teammates respect him and his teammates love him. He could be the other way, and then his team would love him on a Friday night and hate him on a Saturday morning. That’s not the case.”
But not everyone believed Jones was worthy of being the top-ranked back in Texas. Those slights may have been partially fueled by the fact he seemed most interested in schools outside of The Lone Star State, but they were slights all the same. “There was definitely a chip on my shoulder coming out of high school. They said I was too small, I wasn’t a weight room guy, I wasn’t strong enough, you can’t run between the tackles. That definitely gave me the motivation to go out there and prove them wrong,” Jones says.
He did his best to silence the critics during a strong senior season at McKinney which saw him total 2,009 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. The scariest part was Jones only seemed to be getting faster—he won the 2015 district championship in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.37.
“I believe track has especially helped me with my speed and (the ability) to take it to the house, you know? Being known as a home run hitter, my track background has really helped that,” Jones said.
Jones earned a total of 28 offers, including many from the biggest names in college football. Why USC? Because he knew becoming a great running back for the Trojans would be a tremendous challenge. USC always has several talented running backs on their roster, and the school has a rich tradition of success at the position. To be mentioned among talents like Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush and O.J. Simpson, Jones would have to become his best self.
The journey was not without adversity. Jones was always a bit of a homebody growing up, and moving nearly 1,500 miles west of McKinney wasn’t the smoothest of transitions. He missed everything from his friends and family to his beloved Whataburger.
“I did go through a period where I didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t function, it was hard to focus, I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know anybody. So I definitely had to grow up fast, and my coaching staff and my teammates really brought me along,” Jones says. “I think (that experience) made me the man I am today.”
Jones even called his mother expressing a desire to transfer closer to home, but Jackie told him to stick it out. She knew USC was where Jones was meant to be. Despite the early homesickness, Jones was a major contributor for the Trojans as a true freshman. He totaled 987 rushing yards and 9 total touchdowns, becoming the first true freshman to lead USC in rushing since LenDale White achieved that feat in 2003.
But Jones suffered a bit of a sophomore slump the next season, totaling just 208 yards and one touchdown on 4.52 yards per carry over the team’s first six games. Jones was perplexed with the slow start, and strained to justify it. He eventually settled on the fact it had something to do with the fact he chopped off his dreadlocks prior to the season. Jones not knowing just how good he is has been a common thread throughout his career, with both USC teammates and Fecci mentioning it in various articles. Jackie reminded her son that his dreads weren’t the source of his ability—it was his talent and the work he’d put in.
Just as a slow start looked destined to become a slow season, Justin Davis, the running back who’d been taking the lion’s share of the carries so far that season, went down with a high ankle sprain. RoJo knew he would be relied on in Davis’s absence, and he rose to the occasion.
“He knew it was on his shoulders while Justin was out,” USC head coach Clay Helton told The OC Register. Over the final seven games of the 2016 season, Jones totaled 874 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns on 6.67 yards per carry. That fueled USC to a Rose Bowl victory and shattered any talk of a supposed slump.
With Davis off to play in the NFL, Jones was set to become the Trojan workhorse in 2017. In preparation of his bigger workload, he vowed to add muscle to his frame. While Jones had proved plenty capable of playing at around 190, he believed bulking up to 200 pounds would add more power to his game. He’d lifted previously, but Jones had never dedicated himself to the weight room like he did last offseason.
“I sat down with coach Helton and he told me I’d be the starter going into camp. I knew I was going to have to gain weight, and just bulk up my frame to be able to play with guys. So I got with the nutritionists at USC, the strength coaches, and I added on 10 pounds of muscle so I was able to take on more of a workload and be the running back for the Trojans,” Jones says.
USC also brought on Deland McCullough as the team’s new running backs coach, and his expertise proved instrumental in Jones’s monster junior campaign. McCullough helped RoJo dissect defenses prior to the snap and better analyze where natural running lanes would typically present themselves. “(Coach McCullough) just broke the game down to a science and made it really easy to understand. We were able to go out there and just react instead of thinking about what we had to do. We already knew that if the defense was in a certain alignment, then this is about where our run should be going,” Jones said.
If there were any lingering doubts about RoJo’s ability to run through contact, he silenced them last season. The runner who had largely relied on speed and creativity during his first two seasons at USC was now plowing through defenders with reckless abandon. “When he came here he was more of an elusive guy,” USC defensive tackle Justin Bigelow told The OC Register after Jones totaled 159 rushing yards and three touchdowns during the 2017 season opener. “Now he’ll run right through your face. I love that about him. He’s got an attitude. We knew in camp he would be a more physical kind of runner, and that’s what he’s going to put on display.”
He also grew back his dreadlocks, for what it’s worth.
Jones’ increased size and power made him an absolute nightmare for defenses in 2017. The kid who had always been able to run around you now was capable of running through you, too. Jones sprinted and smashed his way to 1,737 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns during his junior season. With his stock soaring and nothing left to prove at USC, Jones declared for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Jones suffered a hamstring injury at the NFL Combine, but he was able to participate in USC’s April 5 Pro Day. Despite the fact he was still nursing his sore hammy, Jones clocked a 4.48 in the 40-Yard Dash. That time should mesh with the “elite plant and acceleration” he’s credited with in his NFL.com scouting report. That same report also notes that Jones is “willful as a runner” and “fights for yardage and falls forward,” which certainly fits the Jones we saw in 2017. However, certain NFL personnel still have their doubts. An anonymous NFC personnel exec told NFL.com Jones “may be a little to light to give it to him more than 12-14 times per game…I worry if he can hold up.”
Let’s just say RoJo is eager to prove his doubters wrong once again. When asked to provide his own scouting report, he replied, “Speed. Home run hitter. Can catch. Can block. Can do it all. A three-down back.”
Maybe the kid from McKinney, Texas is beginning to realize just how good he truly can be.
Photo Credit: Scout.com, Icon Sportswire, Scott Halleran