Tony Jones Jr.: A Case Study in Patience and Performance

By Todd Burlage

The football career for Notre Dame senior Tony Jones Jr. has not always gone exactly how he expected or hoped it would.

But the rewards he’s gained, and the many still to be reaped, keep this humble and selfless Irish running back fully committed, appreciative and regret-free of his choice to play his football here in snowy South Bend instead of back home in sunny South Florida.

A native of St. Petersburg, Florida, and one of the top running back recruits coming out of football factory IMG Academy in Bradenton, the Irish senior might have more reasons why he shouldn’t be playing at Notre Dame than why he is.

“I never liked Notre Dame when I was growing up,” Jones said with a laugh. “My mom (Natalie Jones) made me take a visit here, because she heard it was good on the field and off the field. And then, I just came here and I just fell in love. I committed the next day.”

Along with Notre Dame, Jones’ recruiting visits included Florida, Florida State, Miami (Fla.) and Georgia — which seasonal school doesn’t belong on this list?

But Jones freely admits that mother knows best, then and now.

“Mom wasn’t pleased with any of (the visits) until we came to Notre Dame,” Jones recalled. “She was impressed with the education and the people, it felt like a tight-knit family.”

“Mom wasn’t pleased with any of (the visits) until we came to Notre Dame,” Jones recalled. “She was impressed with the education and the people, it felt like a tight-knit family.”

And so a decision was made, Jones was coming to Notre Dame.

“The academics, the players, the coaches,” Jones said, “this school just had a different feel than all the others. Notre Dame is not for everyone but I knew it was right for me.”

Prepped For The Future

Wanting their son to become the best person, student and athlete he could be, Natalie and Tony Jones Sr., made plenty of personal and financial sacrifices to get Jones Jr. into IMG in the second semester of his sophomore year of high school.

A gifted baseball player — many believe good enough to pursue a professional career — Jones became a two-sport star at IMG.

Jones finished his two-year football career there with 1,285 rushing yards, an 8.9 yards per-carry average and 25 touchdowns.

After his senior season, Jones joined 2015 IMG teammates Shea Patterson (Michigan’s starting quarterback) and former Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta (now with the NFL’s Detroit Lions) as the first IMG players to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Game.

As a baseball player at IMG, Jones hit well over .400 for his career and carried an on-base percentage better than .500.

But Jones is quick to explain that athletic excellence was only one facet of the IMG experience.

“IMG was just like a college because all of our players are good, and they’re all going on to play college,” said Jones, of his two and half years at the academy. “Going to school there brings a lot of competition. My time taught me how to practice well and play well with and against great athletes. You had to grow up fast.”

Jones ended up the first player of what is becoming a pipeline to Notre Dame from IMG.

Irish junior offensive tackle Robert Hainsey and sophomore defensive back Houston Griffith are both IMG grads.

Jones explained that the structure of boarding and living independently at IMG every Monday through Friday equipped him well for his transition to Notre Dame.

“My time (at IMG) taught me how to grow up quickly and learn the process of being a player and a student, just learning how to balance all the responsibilities I will face throughout my life,” he said. “Probably more than anything, it helped me with the time management you need at Notre Dame.”

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Waiting His Turn

Rated as one of the top running back recruits in the country out of high school, Jones still had to pay his dues and bide his time when he arrived at Notre Dame in the summer of 2016.

The newest addition to an already deep stable of Irish running backs that included Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, Jones was relegated to scout-team duties and didn’t play during his freshman season.

As a sophomore in 2017, Jones became a special teams ace, finishing third on the team with nine tackles on those units. He also had 44 rushing carries for 232 yards with three touchdowns.

But in a 2017 season when Adams rushed for more than 1,400 yards and even garnered some brief Heisman consideration, the carries Jones earned that year came mainly in mop-up duty.

With Adams off to the NFL, Jones hoped that as a junior in 2018 his time to shine had arrived.

But like Adams did in 2017, senior running back Dexter Williams emerged in 2018 as the go-to back ahead of Jones and finished the season with 995 rushing yards.

Playing through a high ankle sprain most of last season, Jones still managed 392 rushing yards on 83 carries and made one of the biggest plays of the year, taking a screen pass 51 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 24-17 win at USC that secured an undefeated regular season and a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

Jones is thankful for the opportunities and the important plays he made the last two seasons at Notre Dame. But like any competitor, he entered his senior year this fall wanting more.

Refusing to use the word frustrated to describe waiting behind others, he did admit to feeling impatient at times.

“I know my potential,” he said. “But I also knew that the guys in front of me were really good, they were great leaders and they were great players. I just always had to be ready when my number was called and I think I have been.”

Jones’ playing style will never be called flashy or flamboyant. He’s a reliable and unassuming teammate, and a blue-collar, selfless, no-nonsense running back — all part of a profile that has kept him somewhat anonymous during his time at Notre Dame.

“Tony has been kind of pigeonholed into this ‘journeyman back,’ but he does so many things well,” explained Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly. “He just doesn’t have 4.3 speed, but he blocks, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s going to get you the extra yard. Who wouldn’t want a back like that?”

Jones is finally getting some payoff this season for the patience he showed during his first three here.

With three games remaining this year (including the bowl game), Jones has 611 rushing yards — with four 100-plus-yard rushing games — and an outside chance at reaching 1,000 yards.

During a mid-season stretch against Virginia, Bowling Green and USC, Jones recorded three straight 100-yard games — including his career-high 176 yards against the Trojans.

And against Virginia, Jones put the game on his back with 97 of his 131 rushing yards coming in the fourth quarter. He also added three rushing touchdowns in the game to lead his Irish to a 35-20 comeback win.

A painful rib injury sidelined Jones for the second half against Michigan and the following game against Virginia Tech, but coach and player insist Jones is back at full strength for the final stretch of this season.

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“He plays through nicks and bumps,” Kelly said. “He practices hard. He’s a great teammate. Gimme a boatload of Tony Joneses and I’ll take them in a heartbeat.”

Irish junior tight end Cole Kmet agrees, calling Jones a “warrior” and an irreplaceable member of the Irish offense.

“He runs so hard, it makes everybody in front of him want to block that much harder,” Kmet said. “He’s been a great leader in that running back room and a great teammate. You never have to worry about (Jones) not giving everything he has.”

And while this Senior Day matchup with Boston College could be the last game at Notre Dame Stadium for Jones, he has a year of eligibility remaining in 2020 if he chooses to take it.

“I haven’t thought about any of that stuff, really,” said Jones, when asked what his plans are for 2020. “I’m just trying to finish this season out strong with my teammates and I’ll make my decision sooner or later.”

In the meantime, Jones is going to savor every last moment of this season, just in case it ends up his last.

“This is a dream come true. Being the starting running back at such a prestigious school, it’s showing that my hard work is paying off,” Jones said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs, but Notre Dame has helped me grow as a man and as a player.”

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