Ronald Jones could be RB that carries the Bucs back to the playoffs

Running backs such as Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams helped the Bucs to the postseason as rookies. Will Jones be next?
Running back Ronald Jones II (22), rests between drills during rookie minicamp. (MONICA HERNDON |  Times)
Running back Ronald Jones II (22), rests between drills during rookie minicamp. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published May 11, 2018

TAMPA — Ronald Jones took the handoff and ran to his left, stuck his right foot in the ground and darted through a collapsing hole between the guard and tackle before disappearing like a jet on the horizon.

It was his first carry during his first rookie minicamp practice in a Buccaneers uniform. But it wasn't hard to imagine Jones carrying the football to the end zone, carrying the offense on his shoulders and carrying the Bucs back to the postseason this fall.

"Well, Ronald is what we thought," coach Dirk Koetter said Friday. "You can see the guy has got juice. I mean I'm sure everybody out here saw it. When he touches the ball, he's got a gear that we don't have on our team right now. That doesn't mean he doesn't have a lot to learn. But you can see from his USC tape, but it's great to see him out here and see him in our colors."

Jones, a second-round pick from Southern Cal, should have the biggest impact of any Bucs' player from this year's draft class.
That's not a slight on Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, the 12th overall pick.

But Tampa Bay averaged only 3.7 yards per carry last season, which ranked 27th in the NFL. Their eight rushing TDs tied for 25th. The way you improve that is with a running back who can make explosive plays. Jones is that, having had 12 games in which he had a least one run of 40 yards or more.
Jones, who won't turn 21 until August, isn't shrinking from expectations. He expects to hit it big and hit it fast.

RELATED: The Bucs' run game has been among the NFL's worst. Can Ronald Jones fix it?

"Definitely coming in and hitting it right off the bat," Jones said. "Yeah, Rookie of the Year, things like that. Taking the team to the next level. Winning the division. Possibly going deep in the playoffs. Just making that spark."

It's happened here before, you know.

In 2005, the Bucs drafted Cadillac Williams out of Auburn with the fifth overall pick. Williams rushed for 434 yards in his first three games, setting records as the first rookie running back to ever have three consecutive, 100 yard games to start his career while rushing for the most yards. They sent his shoes to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Bucs started 4-0 and 5-1. Williams won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns. The team won the NFC South with an 11-5 mark before losing in the wildcard to Washington.

The Bucs were coming off a 6-10 season, their first under Tony Dungy, when they drafted Warrick Dunn with 12th overall in '97. He was the perfect complement to fullback Mike Alstott. Dunn produced 1,440 yards rushing (978 yards, four TDs) and receiving (462 yards, three TDs), was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Bucs went 10-6 to finish second in the NFC Central, beat Detroit in the wildcard and lost to the Packers in the divisional playoffs.

Could Jones be one of those transformative running backs?

RELATED: Bucs get their back in the second round: USC's Ronald Jones

Doug Martin rushed for more than 1,454 yards and 11 TDs as a rookie, but it wasn't enough to help the 2012 Bucs avoid a losing season under Greg Schiano. Alvin Kamara was a third-round choice of the Saints and was the difference last season in them getting to the NFC title game.

"If you're an explosive player, yeah, you're going to help the team," Koetter said. "Every team is looking to increase their explosives. It was a good group of running backs in the draft and thought Ronald was an explosive guy who would be a nice complement to Peyton, a complement to the guys we got. Again, it's one day. Let's let it play out here."

Koetter is right. Jones has a long way to go. Right now, he's a two-down back. He wasn't used much as a receiver at USC. Jones caught the football well Friday, but rookies always have a long way to go in learning pass protection.

"Well, he caught the ball well today," Koetter said. "We'll have to see how it goes overall. He did a good job the way they asked him to. They threw him screens and check downs, so we'll just have to see. Again, it's the first practice."

For Jones, there will be other adjustments. Friday was another big step in a long process. He got to meet the other players in his rookie class. He tried to navigate his way around One Buc Place. He pulled on a practice jersey with the NFL shield and a helmet with the Bucs logo.

"It felt great," Jones said. "You know they got the label on it and they've got to the logo. You know, at SC we didn't get the logo going in. So it's good to have that stripe on me.

"As soon as I walked up, the sun and the humidity hit me just like everyone said it would. But it's everything that I've asked for. I'm extremely blessed to be here and I'm just ready to make the most of it."