TAMPA — If he accomplishes nothing else this season, Ronald Jones wants to give the Bucs a different look.
Start with his physical appearance. He weighs 225, a gain of eight pounds. Much of it was added to his enormous legs, made even stronger by running hills in the 100-plus degree heat of Arizona the past two summers.
But the most obvious change will be how Jones will run passing routes, coming out of the blocks low and fast as if he were already carrying the football instead of waiting to catch one.
It’s just one of the lessons he said he learned during those two-hour workouts at Berkeley Preparatory School with Tom Brady.
“He always tells me to get low in my routes and run my routes like I already have the ball,” Jones said.‘'
Playing with Brady will represent a new start for Jones, who overcame a disastrous rookie season to lead the team in rushing with 724 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also caught 31 passes in 2019, only one fewer than he did in three seasons at Southern California.
Jones has worked hard on improving his hands, sometimes catching as many as 300 footballs a day during the offseason from a JUGS machine.
Considering that Brady has completed at least 100 passes to running backs in each of his past three seasons, it was critical that Jones improve as a pass catcher. Bucs running backs coach Todd McNair said Jones used to attempt to catch footballs at unusual angles, something he has worked hard at improving during his drills with Luke Neal, a trainer he worked with during the offseason in Arizona.
‘’A lot of times, they said I wasn’t absorbing the ball,” Jones said. “I was letting the ball hit my body. So just working in the summer with Coach Neal on the extension of the hands, finding that diamond and being able to control the ball.”
Neal, whose son Devonte played at Notre Dame and Arizona, hooked up with Jones following his rookie year, when he produced only 77 yards as second-round pick.
When he was growing up, Neal had an opportunity to meet Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton through his grandfather, who was a pastor.
It was Payton who impressed upon Neal the value of running hills like the one he climbed in Arlington Heights, Ill.
When Neal showed Jones the NFL Films documentary on Payton, A Football Life, it opened with Payton running the hill.
“What I went through over the summer, looking at the training with the hills that Walter Payton did ― what he did that just inspired me ― putting himself through the mental part of it just fulfilled me for when I got back here just to be ready for things like that,” Jones said.”
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In fact, the Bucs’ ground game will run through Jones. Despite drafting Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round and signing free agent LeSean McCoy, Bucs coach Bruce Arians says Jones is the No. 1 ball carrier for 2020.
The most rushing attempts Jones had in his pro career came last year in a 40-34 overtime loss at Seattle, when he rushed 18 times for 67 yards.
“RoJo is the main guy,” Arians said of Jones. “He’ll carry the load. All of those other guys are fighting for roles, (for) who goes in second when he gets tired, maybe who is the third-down guy.”
Jones has also paid his dues. He lost his confidence as a rookie under coach Dirk Koetter. He began 2019 behind Peyton Barber, who signed as a free agent last spring with Washington. He was benched after missing a blitz pickup against Jacksonville.
“Obviously, no player wants to come out of the game,” Jones said. “I kind of just took it as a coaching moment. You learn from it. You can’t keep making the same mistake, so try to correct the old mistake and not make a new one. ”
Arians was impressed the way Jones continued working. In his final two games last season, Jones rushed 25 times for 183 yards. That included his first 100-yard rushing game in the season finale against the Falcons.
“He improved dramatically from last April to December,” Arians said. “He has shown that he’s the guy.”