As much as anything can be consensus these days, the running back rankings for the 2018 NFL Draft
seem to be among the most consensus things out there. There are Penn State phenom Saquon Barkley
and Louisiana State bruiser Derrius Guice in the first round, and everyone else in either Day Two or
Three. It may take a standout showing at the NFL Combine for that to change, but University of
Southern California junior Ronald Jones II has the tape and the potential to turn that two-back
conversation into three.
Jones certainly has the production to work his way into the conversation. Jones averaged 5.9 yards per
carry behind an injury-plagued USC offensive line in 2017, gathering 1,550 yards and scoring 19
touchdowns on 261 carries. Furthermore, Jones exhibits the stamina to be a bell cow back, as his yards
per attempts increased with every quarter (5.44 YPA in the first quarter, 6.03 YPA in the second quarter,
6.23 YPA in the third quarter, and 6.44 YPA in the fourth quarter).
Even more impressive, Jones had zero fumbles in 2017. Ball security is not an issue, as he fumbled only
twice throughout his entire USC career over 591 rushing attempts. He holds the ball high and tight
throughout his runs, switching hands only when he knows that there is enough time to effectively do so,
and bringing a second hand onto the ball when he knows he is going down.
The first thing that jumps out on tape with Jones is his vision. USC routinely ran outside zone and
stretch concept runs, and Jones executed them perfectly. Jones would flow laterally behind his linemen,
find the best hole, and fluidly cut upfield through the hole without sacrificing speed. Jones keeps his
hips square through his cut and running through the line, maximizing his power and speed in traffic.
Once he makes it through the hole, Jones continues to exhibit patience in allowing blocks to develop
downfield and taking the most effective route to follow his blocks rather than simply going straight for
the endzone. His speed is certainly a weapon, but more importantly, Jones knows how to harness that
speed, waiting for his receivers and tight ends to engage in a block before running behind the blocker
and by the helpless defenders. Jones is also hard to bring down in the open field, showing great body
control and elusiveness downfield. The below run, taken from a dominating October 27, 2016
performance against Cal (18 runs for 223 yards, two catches for 18 yards, and three total touchdowns),
shows the vision, body control, patience, elusiveness, and speed NFL scouts will love about his game.
The vision and decisiveness that Jones exhibits also means that he is rarely stopped for negative
yardage. Over one quarter of his rushes, 27.6% of them to be exact, resulted in a first down, compared
to only 22.6% for Saquon Barkley, 24.9% for Derrius Guice, and 25.5% for Bryce Love. In fact, Jones
ranked third in first-down percentage among running backs in the Power 5 conferences who had more
than 200 rushing attempts. Jones also shows great elusiveness in the backfield when a play breaks
down. He simply refuses to take negative yardage, an important ability to have. In a September 16,
2017 matchup against Texas, Jones singlehandedly picked up a first down on what should have been a
negative play, showing his shiftiness by evading two would-be tacklers in the backfield, and showing his
power by pushing two other defenders backwards for a positive gain.
Jones also took the majority of his runs out of the shotgun formation, with a smaller percentage coming
from the pistol. In the shotgun formation, the running back generally is closer to the line of scrimmage,
giving him less time read the blocks and pick up the speed needed to get through the line. Jones, even
with this tougher formation, has shown the skills to run successfully. Giving him even more time to
process the blocks and pick up a full head of steam will showcase his talent.
Jones does not fit the prototype build for a running back. Standing at 6’0” tall and weighing in at just
200 pounds, he is either too tall or too light to fit the mold used for most running backs today. In fact,
you have to go all the way back to Jamaal Charles to find a successful running back that matches his
physique. Jones avoided injury, for the most part, in his college career, missing only one game in three
years. Jones’s ability to change direction quickly means that he is typically able to avoid the big hit by
switching directions slightly as he is being brought down. This may prove to be beneficial in the NFL, as
he certainly would like to avoid the durability issues that Jamaal Charles faced.
His atypical build further lends itself to some negatives about his game. Being so tall without the weight
that normally accompanies it means that keeping a low pad level in traffic becomes even more
important in order to keep leverage and generate power. Occasionally, as shown below in a beatdown
USC suffered at the hands of Notre Dame, Jones keeps his pad level too high when attacking the hole,
causing him to lose balance and be stopped well short of what he could have otherwise picked up.
Further, while Jones was not asked to pass block very often, the few times he did often spelled disaster
for his quarterback. In the Cotton Bowl against Ohio State, Nick Bosa was not affected at all by a weak
push by Jones, running straight through an offensive tackle and Jones on his way to an easy sack.
While Nick Bosa will be a high first-round pick when he does declare, you want to see your running back
at least get a chip on a rusher that breaks free. Jones was a willing blocker on wide receiver screens and
got good leverage against defensive backs and linebackers, but he seemed to want no part in taking on
defensive linemen. This, coupled with how rarely he was used as a receiver at USC, could mean that
Jones comes off the field in third down situations.
This is not to say that Jones doesn’t have the skill to develop into a three-down back at the next level.
Jones showed reliable hands on the passes that were thrown his way, and his ability in the open field
makes him dangerous after the catch. USC simply does not run a system where throwing to the running
backs is a priority. His pass blocking will need to be developed.
Finally, while Jones has plenty of speed, he may not be able to break away quite as much at the next
level. On many of his runs, defensive backs were able to gain some ground on him, and may have been
able to catch him if they took better angles. Safeties with elite speed and instincts may not have as
much trouble keeping those long runs from being touchdowns. With his thinner stature, Jones may
need to run in the 4.3 range at the NFL Combine to prove that his speed can be a true weapon.
Overall, Jones is an impressive prospect. His strengths (speed, vision, patience, reading blockers in the
open field, elusiveness, ball security, etc.) are things that can’t be taught and translate well to the pro
game. His negatives (keeping a lower pad level going through the line, production in the passing game,
pass blocking, etc.) are all things that can be taught by NFL coaches. The only true cause for concern is
whether this Jamaal Charles-esque back will have just as much trouble staying healthy with bigger
bodies and harder hits coming after him. However, if Jones can stay healthy, it shouldn’t be a surprise if
five years down the line scouts are talking about him as the top running back in this class over the likes
of Barkley and Guice. Jones could sneak into the tail end of the first round with strong workouts, but
likely won’t fall much more than the early- to mid- portions of the second round.