TAMPA — After a rookie season that saw Bucs running back Ronald Jones’ ability beaten and his confidence broken, the team’s second-year player will enter training camp as one of the team’s most intriguing figures.
A new coaching staff offers Jones a fresh set of eyes and opportunity. Jones, drafted in the second round, played sparingly last year, and when he was on the field, he wasn’t productive, carrying the ball 23 times for an average of 1.9 yards.
“Last year, it was definitely disappointing for me for myself and from a team standpoint,” Jones said recently during mandatory minicamp. “Definitely, for me, it’s about getting on the right track. We have a new system, a new staff, we’re trying to make our mark in here.”
When Bruce Arians’ staff studied tape of Jones for the first time, they saw a player whose confidence they’d have to build back up. Running backs coach Todd McNair noted that Jones was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 13 of his carries, so he never got to show the moves and burst he displayed as a college player at USC.
But in practice, they saw a different player. Maybe rebuilding Ronald Jones wouldn’t be so difficult. Jones emerges from Arians’ short list of players who have been most impressive this offseason. Those who work closest with Jones, like McNair, love the strong work ethic and light personality he has shown, but don’t want to get too far ahead of themselves.
“You just want him — all players, any player — the thing is you’ve got to feel comfortable,” McNair said. “The first thing is knowing what to do and he’s very smart and sharp and he retains (information). That’s a big plus, because once a player understands what to do, he can play fast, and then it’s just a matter of him getting him comfortable and giving him some tools to get himself on the right track. Baby steps and keep going from there.”
While only so much can be taken from this offseason’s non-contact workouts — you can gauge a running back’s speed and vision, but not his ability to hit the hole or break tackles — Jones is going into July’s training camp feeling good about himself and his ability to contribute is important, especially when you consider how rough last year was for Jones from the start.
Entering last year’s combine, some draft experts saw Jones as the second-best running back available behind Saquon Barkley, but he went in with a nagging hamstring injury he aggravated while running his 40-yard dash, limiting him for the rest of the combine and scaring teams off.
Jones said the hamstring lingered through offseason practice. He ran for just 22 yards on 28 carries in the preseason and his pass-catching ability was a glaring weakness. He was a healthy scratch for the first three games, and once he saw the field in a Week 4 loss in Chicago, he was unspectacular. In the nine games he played, he logged more than 20 offensive snaps just once, and he missed four games with a recurrence of the hamstring injury.
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But Jones said this year he’s healthier than he’s ever been. He likes the freedom of the new Bucs offense, and the fact that Arians said he wants to run the ball more. He’s simplified his pass-catching technique, making sure he lowers his elbows so he can see the ball better as it’s thrown to him.
“He was drafted where he was drafted for a reason,” McNair said. “He’s got a wealth of talent. Our goal is to take the anxiety away from him, take the expectations off him. Let just focus and make this thing small. And it seems to be paying off. He’s working hard, and he’s going to keep working hard.”
Jones said he has developed a better awareness by watching veterans like starter Peyton Barber and newcomer Andre Ellington. He admits he’s taking meetings and practices more seriously.
“Just learning how to really be a pro.”
“I would say RoJo has been showing out,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “His confidence, his comfort, RoJo’s a smart guy. He’s getting comfortable in this offense. No one is breathing down his neck. He’s more relaxed and executing at a high level.”
Jones, who will enter training camp a week shy of his 22nd birthday, said he’s definitely more comfortable than he was last season.
“Confidence is definitely key because if you don’t believe in yourself, that you have the ability, these guys, they’re going to show you up,” Jones said. “These are the best players in the world so when you know what you’re doing, you can just react and not have to think, and I think that’s what I’m doing this year. Just reacting and playing ball. I’m not asking myself, ‘Is this zone, is this man? Do I break out, do I break in?’”
The Bucs passed the ball 64.13 percent of the time last season, mostly because they spent most of their games playing from behind, and their 95.2 rushing yards per game ranked 29th out of the league’s 32 teams. They also averaged just 3.92 yards per carry, which was second-worst in the NFL.
“The offense is a lot more free,” Jones said. “I think we’re able to play within ourselves and be ourselves. I like it a lot. For me, it’s fun. They’re all great coaches, but I think just for me, I’m starting to put all the verbiage and everything together.”
“I’m definitely ready and I can’t wait to get the most of those opportunities, but I’ve just got to showing them that I can be a dependable player and they can count on me in critical situations.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.