SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Tony Jones Jr. is in no position to demand the football. It is not his nature, either.
It may finally be time for Notre Dame to make the patient senior its featured running back, even if the seventh-ranked Fighting Irish may be arriving at this point somewhat by default.
With junior Jafar Armstrong out for the next “few weeks” due to a torn abdominal muscle, according to coach Brian Kelly, Jones is slated to start when Notre Dame (1-0) hosts New Mexico (1-0) on Saturday.
Jones’ career high for carries is 17, coming in last year’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt, a game that also yielded his career best in rushing yardage of 118. His second-best figures in both categories came in this year’s opener, a 35-17 Labor Day win at Louisville, when he gained 110 yards on 15 carries after Armstrong was sidelined early. Those two games are also Jones’ two best in terms of rushing average, at 6.9 and 7.3.
“To be honest, I think I’m more like a volume guy,” the 5-foot-11, 224-pound Jones said Tuesday. “I need the ball a lot. Well, not a lot, but I need it like three times (within a handful of plays), then I start rolling, then it’s hard to stop me after that.”
Jones said he will take the ball “as many times as coach needs,” and snickered when asked if he has the capability to take it more than that career best of 17.
“Oh, yeah. Definitely yeah,” Jones said.
A year ago, Jones and Armstrong were the co-placeholders while the Irish waited for Dexter Williams, now with the Green Bay Packers, to return from missing the first four games. Jones and Armstrong logged almost identical numbers in those four outings. Jones piled up 303 yards on 56 carries through five weeks, good for a 5.4 average.
Yet, over the season’s final eight games as Williams got priority, Jones slipped toward afterthought with a mere 27 carries, 89 yards and 3.3 average. He had no touches in the 30-3 national semifinal loss to Clemson.
As confident as Jones is, Notre Dame is clearly still exploring its options.
The depth chart for this week’s game goes four deep at running back — no other offensive position lists more than two deep — and that doesn’t even include ping-ponging junior Avery Davis, the former quarterback recruit whom Kelly recently shifted back to running back after beginning this season as a reserve cornerback.
Sophomore Jahmir Smith, listed as No. 2 behind Jones, suffered a sprained toe during a scrimmage last week, but is practicing and expected to play Saturday. Freshman Kyren Williams and sophomore C’Bo Flemister, listed as the co-No. 3s, saw sparse action against Louisville.
Jones at least is the most experienced option for the Fighting Irish.
While his coach’s measured words don’t sing like a reverberating endorsement, neither is Kelly unappreciative of the back from St. Petersburg, Florida, who never carried the ball as a freshman and got it 44 times as a sophomore.
“Tony’s been really important to us,” Kelly said. “I think if I was going to make a public comment on Tony Jones’ play, it’s that he is comfortably fitting who he is. He’s not trying to be somebody else. He’s Tony Jones. He’s assignment-correct, he’s physical at the point of attack, he’s doing his job and he’s being Tony Jones, and I kind of like that.”
Teammates like that Jones is getting this chance, which comes on the heels of a dedicated offseason in which he concentrated on his diet and took up yoga.
“I wasn’t surprised, honestly,” wide receiver Chase Claypool said of Jones’ performance against Louisville, “but I was definitely super proud, super excited for him.”
As for switching from Armstrong to Jones, guard Tommy Kraemer put it this way: “You can’t tell there’s a drop-off, which is a good thing.”