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Scouting Notes

Solak | Ronald Jones is a first-round diamond hiding in the rough

As I was #grinding through my grades for this class’s top running backs, only one player really surprised me: Ronald Jones, RB out of USC.

I knew from watching him live that I liked him-but when he graded out as a Top-20 player on my current board, I did a bit of a double-take. It wasn’t like Jones had Heisman rumblings or unbelievable production as a Trojan. As such, I went deeper and deeper into more games of Jones, to determine the discrepancy between my mental conception of Jones’ ranking, and where my grading system had actually slotted him.

On the other side of the deep dive, I’m here to say this: Jones was productive in the USC offense; he was effective; he was a key component for the Trojans. But he was grossly misused by the Trojans, and his evaluation is more traits-based than it would seem. Ronald Jones demands an NFL usage radically differently than the one Tee Martin gave him in SoCal, and in a more advantageous role, will grow into twice the weapon we ever saw at USC.

Jones: Traits within USC’s scheme

Jones played with the Trojans at around 195 lbs. At 6’0 tall, he is not super thick or super big. Yet the Trojans used Jones as their short-yardage back, their goal-line back. Their freshman RB, Stephen Carr, has easily 10 lbs on Jones-he found far more 3rd down, pass-catching work.

If you go deeper and begin considering run design by which back took  the field, Carr again got a ton of outside zone and occasionally gap-blocking looks, which maximized Carr’s explosiveness in space. Jones? Inside zone. Usually run from the shotgun or the pistol, the inside zone runs were predominately downhill and almost exclusively between the tackles.

Reminder: Jones played at about 195 lbs.

There’s nothing wrong with being good at interior running at 195-it’s just not what you’d expect. Jones, to his credit, did very well to maximize these reps by  using his suddenness to generate tight creases, and working through those creases with his skinny frame and flexibility.

Jones is the anti-Saquon Barkley-shout-out to the man Jon Ledyard and his piece on the Penn State RB-in that he consistently makes the correct decisions, run after run after run. Because of his deployment, it doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score, but Jones has some of the most hard-fought 3-yard runs you’ll find in college football.

Take this excellent display of processing speed, feel, and suddenness above. Jones is working inside zone to the left, but the playside 4-tech immediately wins and sets a hard edge, the 0-tech eats up the double team without giving up ground, and the MIKE closes on the playside A-gap. Ruh-roh-Texas has this play plugged up.

Jones reads all of this quite quickly, and begins pressing vertically to the backside while keeping his feet beneath him. He has not yet committed to attacking this backside A-gap-he still has a three-way go.

As he feels the backside pursuit closing, he jump cuts. This jump cut-while it looks simple-is awesome. Not only is the cut powerful enough to evade the tackler, but it’s soft enough that Jones is able to keep his feet connected to the ground and immediately propel himself over the fallen body before him. Even as he lands, he has begun processing the next oncoming defenders-he almost ducks under contact, and gets tackled by his helmet (facemask?).

This run by Jones looks almost exactly like a footwork drill in training: controlled upper half, light feet that remain under the hips, and explosive movements. Jones strings all of these moves together, however, while processing the changing topography around him. Watch it again, slower, to understand how much information Jones inputs, while making so many moves.

Jones has elite spatial awareness and mental processing. While making his first cut, he’s setting up his second; while making his second, he’s anticipating the body rolling toward him. He plays the game multiple moves ahead in his mind’s eye, and he has the power and precision in the lower half to pull off these complex combinations.

Understanding Jones’ processing speed helps us riddle out why he had goal-line and short-yardage responsibilities for the Trojans. He consistently uncovered hidden yardage through both his mental and physical agility. He rarely made mistakes; lost yardage that he should have gained. He plays industriously and doesn’t put his team’s field positioning at risk.

When you play as mentally fast as Jones does, you need your body to keep up. Jones regularly plays at ridiculous angles, generating power through his lower body despite being pointed in one direction and pulled in another. Pliable and springy, Jones can maintain his balance through contact and pick up dirty yardage he has no reason getting.

This is a multi-yard loss for most runners. Even if you can shed the closing DT, that linebacker had an unimpeded path to you, and your momentum has already been affected by the DT. We can watch Jones identify the closing LB even as he’s bunnyhopping out of the DT’s grasp-and this is where he’s special.

Look at how sudden that stop is-then look at which foot was responsible for gathering his momentum. You would expect it’s the outside foot-but Jones’ inside foot, his right foot, digs into the ground and gathers all of his momentum almost instantaneously. This frees up his left foot to begin the process of propelling Jones forward, which allows him to cut underneath the LB, duck through the arm tackle, and get north to generate positive yardage.

That is an elite play. Jones likely has the best footwork of this class, and I would argue has the best reactionary quickness as well. That’s cornerback-worthy recognition, redirection, and explosion right there.

See how we can suss out excellent traits from runs that don’t, by design, maximize such traits? In Jones we find a heady runner, who processes exceptionally well and has the lower body flexibility and footwork to change direction with shocking suddenness. In his primary deployment at USC, these traits translated into Jones regularly responding to penetration and maximizing yardage between the guards.

But when we project Jones to the NFL, we inevitably must ask: what could he do if given more space?

Jones: Projection to NFL

Let’s re-illustrate who we’ve got in Ronald Jones: smallish, explosive, excellent reader of defenses, maximizes yardage, has elite stop/start ability.

When you build an outside zone runner in a lab, you probably add about 10-15 pounds to that sentence, and then smash the big red button.

The fact that USC didn’t regularly give Jones more outside zone looks is an utter crime. Because of his excellent ability to gear up/gear down, Jones can execute the primary agent of outside zone-force the linebackers to flow too hard to one sideline, then cut underneath them-to perfection. First, Jones’ speed stresses the linebackers to the outside-then he can cut upfield (outside zone runs are designed, not to get the RB to the outside, but to give him space to cut upfield) in a blink.

Many running backs have this athletic profile, but they lack the vision and processing speed to read the sweeping flow of outside zone and identify the appropriate lane. This, as we’ve seen, could not be further from the truth with Jones. He is an economical decision-maker, and-as we’ll see-the increased time in the backfield and space covered on outside zone looks allows Jones to manipulate second level defenders to create even more space in which to work.

If you don’t believe me, just watch.

Center wins the playside A-gap (over Harrison Phillips, Stanford DT). The MIKE has to start flowing hard, in case Jones takes that open A-gap. Jones stays pressing into that playside gap, forcing the defense to flow, harder and harder to the playside. The MIKE simply must keep committing and committing further to his left. At the last second, Jones slices upfield and gets skinny through the crease. Easy as pie.

We can now begin to see how Jones’ anticipation, vision, and suddenness help him in the second level as well. Even as he’s breaking the first tackle, he’s got his eyes on the backside pursuit and he’s ready to cut underneath. Again admire how Jones keeps his feet connected to the ground. Can’t go anywhere if you can’t step, and Jones has an impressively high step frequency that allows him to make such sudden movements. If not for a great hustle play by that DE, Jones had the opportunity for a lot more yardage.

Let’s get an even better example regarding Jones’ ability to bait and switch at the line of scrimmage.

Go on, watch that jump cut again. You deserve to spoil yourself.

You commonly find this play installed behind the inside zone: they call it H-Back ISO, or H-Back Lead. The H-Back (#88) climbs into the A-gap, as the offensive line zone blocks in two separate directions. We can see that the delayed handoff gives RoJo another click to process, and the split offensive line really spreads out the defensive line. Sure, it’s still a between-the-guards run, yes-but now there is space with which to work.

Jones presses the correct gap-but both the center and the left guard lose their blocks (the center, admittedly, a lot worse). As a result, tons of bodies are flying into the hole. Despite this fact, however, Jones continues to push forward, even as an unblocked LB and the disengaged DT begin to close in.

Boop! Leaves ’em grasping for air. Watch again how quickly Jones turns his horizontal velocity into upfield burst off of that initial cut.

We see a very similar concept in the second level, as Jones stays vertical for as long as possible, baiting the closing safety, before shooting out of his grasp as well.

Give Jones room, and he’ll embarrass second-level defenders in space. It’s that simple.

Jones as an NFL weapon:

Deployed primarily as a between-the-tackles grinder in USC, I’d like to see Jones deployed similarly to Matt Forte, in his heyday with Chicago, or Frank Gore with San Francisco: a player who can do yeoman’s work between the tackles, but warrants at least 5-8 targets/game, and gets schemed touches in space.

Another player who foreshadows Ronald Jones’ deployment in the NFL? Jamaal Charles. While I regularly stray from such lofty comps, Jones gets the comparison because he and Charles share the same primary skill that permeates their greatest plays: anticipation, processing speed, spatial awareness. Colloquially we call it “feel,” and Charles and Jones both have it in spades. The inherently know how to create space and gain the most yardage available. I think Jones’ physical profile is a little further from Charles’, though there are certainly still similarities. Jones may have better straight-line explosiveness, but likely loses to Charles when it comes to both wiggle and long speed (though Jones can still fly).

While Jones grades out as a mid-late Round 1 player on my scale, I imagine he won’t go until Round 2 (unless Barkley and Guice both go Top-15). That said, Jones-like all first-round grades I hand out-has franchise-altering potential as a 18-24 touch/game player. Jones can execute any blocking scheme on the planet, and while he is yet essentially untested as a receiver, every tool is present to make Jones a deadly route runner from the HB position. He’s not the best pass-protector on the planet, but he’s willing and active-I can do something with that.

He is the best running back to come out of USC since Reggie Bush (they share a few similarities as well, by the way), and he has every tool necessary to persist in the league far longer, and far more successfully, than Bush ever did.


Benjamin Solak

Ben Solak has been a football fan and film junkie for all of his life, and has the pleasure of serving as a National Scout for NDT Scouting. He also covers the Philadelphia Eagles for Bleeding Green Nation and co-hosts the Locked On Eagles podcast. Ben takes many things far too seriously, including fishing, Captain America, grammar, and Game Of Thrones.



  1. Ron Hiatt

    February 12, 2018 at 10:37 pm

    Love these types of pieces great info love it. I tip my hat I don’t do that much but this is sizzling and takes the sting of pain off how long the offseason is.

    • Benjamin Solak

      Benjamin Solak

      February 12, 2018 at 11:34 pm

      Thank you kindly, Ron! I’m glad you enjoyed and hope you follow along for the rest of the season!

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