TAMPA — Everywhere you turn around Bucs training camp, you will find someone singing the praises of second-year running back Ronald Jones.
“Wow, he’s an explosive kid,” rookie offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.
“He’s going to be a special guy this year,” veteran running back Andre Ellington said. “He can pretty much do anything.”
“His confidence should be sky high right now, as good of a camp as he’s had,” coach Bruce Arians said.
Two weeks of practices have concluded, and as the Bucs open their preseason schedule tonight against the Steelers at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, there might not be a player with more eyes on him — and excitement around him — than Jones.
The 22-year-old out of Southern Cal enters the preseason opener with a clean slate, a stronger frame and burgeoning confidence, all factors the Bucs believe can allow Jones to tap into the potential that made him a second-round pick a year ago.
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“I just think he’s comfortable playing football now,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “I know how I was my rookie year, and definitely that second year allows you to get better. You saw that (Jones) put in the work this offseason.”
Jones’ offseason included a commitment to getting bigger and stronger so he could have more burst running between the tackles. Last season he didn’t have much of a chance, getting hit behind the line of scrimmage on 13 of his 23 carries.
So he spent his offseason in Scottsdale, Ariz., working out and running hills in heat that would be comparable to Tampa’s. He put on about a dozen pounds, reporting to camp at around 220.
“I kept the speed, too, which is the main thing,” Jones said. “Coach said I could get as big as I want as long as I kept the speed. Just add some bulk to my frame so I can be able to take the pounding of this league.”
Arians has opened the door for Jones, nicknamed “RoJo” by teammates and coaches, to win the starting job over incumbent Peyton Barber, though the coach expects both to play significant roles.
“That’s the head man, and the head coach, so coming from him (it) means a lot,” Jones said. “(It) just shows that my hard work is paying off, and I’ve just got to keep going from here.”
Jones has been doing things to create expectations for a big step forward this season. Not only has he run with conviction between the tackles, he has shown breakaway explosiveness that Barber hasn’t. (Out of 234 carries last season, Barber had just four runs of more than 18 yards.) And Jones has evolved as a receiver, a skill that will be a much more important part of Arians’ offense as he tries to get Winston to take more checkdowns instead of forcing passes into trouble.
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Last year a hamstring injury that hindered Jones’ offseason lingered throughout the year. He ran for just 22 yards on a team-high 28 carries in the preseason, leading him to be a healthy scratch for the first three games of the regular season. Once he reached the field, Jones was unspectacular, averaging just 1.9 yards per carry on his 23 carries. Just four of those carries were for more than 4 yards.
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“Last year was tough, definitely not the year I wanted,” Jones said. “I tried not to weigh on it too much. I tried to have amnesia.”
“My IQ of the game just went up in the offseason, just watching how defenses work and then trying to find my niche in the offense. It’s a lot different (this year). I know what to expect now. I know all the obstacles that are in place, so I just try to block out all the noise and just focus on ball.”
Ellington, a five-year veteran who played under Arians with the Cardinals, has served as a mentor for Jones, helping him get adjusted to a new offense.
“Right now it’s all about making sure (Jones has) the mental aspect of the game down pat,” said Ellington, 30. “But the skills are there. It’s just making sure he understands how good he can be and he knows his ceiling and that he can go above that.
“So far he’s been making progress, and each day he’s getting better.”
Arians said Barber will work with the starting offense tonight but he hopes to get Jones first-team reps as well.
Jones knows that all the hype around him this camp won’t mean much if he doesn’t produce in games and that tonight is a valuable opportunity to build on the confidence everyone is showing in him.
“I think it’s important, to show the new staff I can handle it and all that, and just going out there and trying to make a name for myself,” Jones said.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.