Tony Jones Leads Formidable and Balanced Notre Dame Ground Game

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It’s bye week for #9 Notre Dame, and that gives the Fighting Irish a chance to get extra preparation and additional rest for their next game, a week from Saturday at #16 Michigan. The bye week also gives us in the media a chance to a deep dive on a position group- in this case the running backs.

Near the top of the bye week priority list for the Irish is getting junior Jafar Armstrong, the back who entered the season #1 on the depth chart, fully re-integrated into the offense. Armstrong (6′, 220) suffered a soft-tissue injury to his groin/ab region during the opener at Louisville, and #8 didn’t return until Saturday night against USC.

Senior Tony Jones (5-11, 224, #6) has been the starter since Jafar went down, with sophomore Jamhir Smith (5-11, 205, #34) right behind him on the depth chart. Also in the mix are sophomore C’Bo Flemister 5-11 200 #20 and junior avery davis (5-11 202 #3) a converted cornerback. Much like playing the mobile slots, there is a heavy element of luck involved in betting in sports, and right now Notre Dame face long odds of making the College Football Playoff. A really dominant run game could help lead them back to the CFP, and thus defy the odds.

As of now, they have a dominant feature back in Jones, who surpassed 100 rushing yards with fewer than three minutes remaining in the first half of Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over arch-rival USC on Saturday night, and he’s now tied for 14th in school history with four 100-yard rushing games in a season.

His 176 rushing yards against the Trojans were a career high, and his 557 yards, on a very impressive seven yards per carry, lead the team.

 

“Tony Jones has been kind of pigeonholed into this kind of journeyman back, but he does so many things well,” Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly said after the victory in the Jeweled Shillelagh clash.

“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? You know, he plays through nicks and bumps. He practices hard.”

“He’s a great teammate. Give me a boat load of Tony Joneses and I’ll take them in a heartbeat.

Quarterback Ian Book, the team’s second leading rusher halfway through the season had this to say about Jones:

“He works so hard every single day in practice and works his butt off, so he’s being rewarded for that like he should be, so he’s a great tool in our offense, and if he keeps doing that, it makes everything — it opens up everything else in the passing game when he can run like that.”

USC dropped two DBs back deep into coverage and essentially focused on trying to take away the ND passing game. The Trojans dared ND to beat them with the rushing game, and the Irish happily obliged.

You still had Fighting Irish WRs making big plays though as Braden Lenzy notched his first career rushing touchdown (second career TD), a 51-yard score, in the second quarter. It was Notre Dame’s longest rushing touchdown and rushing play of the season.

The ND ground game has been able to get it going with several different contributors this season, and now we should see it taken up a notch when Armstrong is 100% fully back into the swing of things. He had just one carry on Saturday night.

“To be honest, I don’t know what is going on with Jafar,” Tony Jones said. “I just know that he was ready. When coach called his number, he looked like he was ready to bust one out.”

Jones certainly busted one out; breaking off a 43-yard-run against USC.

“I’ve always been like this,” Jones said in a postgame assessment of his performance. “Coach let me out the cage a little bit.

“It just feels good that I’m working hard and it’s showing out on the field. Now I just have to keep working harder to make this game look like a regular game.”

The blessing in disguise of having Armstrong out is this- now you can see what else you have in the ND stable of running backs.

“It definitely gave us a better glimpse at where they are right now and where, quite frankly, they can be over the course of time,” Kelly said on conference call on Sunday.

“We saw Jamhir Smith run really hard, really physical, he did a really good job in pass protection. You’ve seen C’bo in different situations, Avery is a guy who has excelled in passing situations.”

“So it gave a glimpse into the roles that different guys will play for us as the season unfolds.”

You’ve already read Kelly’s assessment of Tony Jones, what he brings to the table. Here’s what he had to say about the rest of the RBs in the position group:

I think Jamhir is a physical runner, he’s got a little bit of an explosive step to him, but he’s a big back similar to Tony, C’bo we saw has got some elusiveness to him, hard to bring down.

“And obviously what we’ve seen from Avery Davis is a guy who can be very effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield, so that’s really where it is now until we get Jafar- he’s a little bit of all those things when you put it all together.”

“He’s got some explosiveness, he’s got some size, the ability to catch the football.”

“Jafar has been the guy that has a little bit of all those together, but obviously the injury has put him in a position where we haven’t been able to see that.”

“Hopefully, moving forward we will.”

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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