Running back Ronald Jones II was the Buccaneers' second pick in the 2018 NFL draft out of the University of Southern California. With a season that left something to be desired at the position, Tampa Bay was looking for someone that was going to be able to come in and make an impact immediately.
That sort of pressure isn't anything new for Jones, who played as a freshman for the Trojans. During his three-year USC career, Jones racked up 3,921 total yards from scrimmage, with 3,619 coming on the ground. His career average was 6.1 yards per carry and he scored a total of 42 touchdowns both rushing and receiving. That healthy rushing average may have something to do with the fact that he's already gained three or four yards by the time he takes his first couple strides. At 6'0", Jones is taller and bigger than you think. But that size remarkably doesn't come at the expense of speed. It's what caught the eye of USC's offensive coordinator, Tee Martin, as well as the rest of the coaching and recruiting staff.
"We didn't know much about him with him being from Texas," Coach Martin said. "We started looking for speed around the country and he popped up on the radar kind of late and we got on him and he decided to come. About two or three days into training camp we were like, 'this young man is going to play.'"
Not only did Jones quickly prove he could play, he caught on in the mental aspect of the game rapidly as well. In USC's pro-style offense, running backs are asked to do a lot, according to Martin. They have to be in constant communication with the quarterback, as well as the offensive line, to make sure they are lined up correctly, know the play call and who to take on in pass protection if they aren't involved in advancing the ball itself on the particular play.
"He figured out protections pretty quickly, he figured out the run game pretty quickly," said Martin. "He was a quick study. He was out there playing as a freshman, making plays and the talent was obvious. Every day being around him was great. He did everything we asked him to do."
Some of those things Jones was asked to do? Put on 10 pounds. That was the challenge from Martin to Jones last offseason before Jones' final season at USC. He answered the call without question and had his best season as a result. In 2017, Jones was a machine, rushing 261 times for 1,550 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns as a junior. He also added 187 yards receiving on 14 catches, including one touchdown, to give him 1,737 total yards on the year and a 6.3 yards per play average.
"That was one thing I always felt was underrated [about Ronald] was his strength," Martin said. "Really going into last season you saw how his work in the weight room payed dividends. When he was younger, he was a little bit smaller. It was about speed. Then I challenged him last offseason to put on 10 pounds and he did it. He came into the season with a different running style. He was a better in-between-the-tackle runner than in previous years and making those tough runs is what I think it separated his game last season from the season before. Those grind it out three-yard runs, four-yard runs that may not be pretty but they were successful for this offense."
Jones' mix of speed and strength may also be a result of transitions within USC's staff that he had to adapt to. Martin pointed out that Jones had three different running back coaches in his college career – which can be challenging for some players. But it wasn't for Ronald.
"[He's] one-hundred percent a team player," Martin said. "It's easy to think about the last [coach] and not give the new guy a chance or not work as hard for one then the other. But that never happened with him. Every running back coach he had, they had a good relationship with him. He went to class, we never had to worry about him doing the wrong things. He wasn't a guy we worried about.
"He was the solid Steady Eddie. Always had a smile on his face, twisting his hair. My favorite memory of Ronald is I can still see him in the back of the room twisting his hair kind of looking at me. He was fun to be around, very fun to be around."
Coach Martin spoke fondly of Jones and made sure to point out that while he was fun to be around, he was always working. It was a trait he attributed to his upbringing and his family. Jones' father was in the Army, and undoubtedly instilled military values in his children, but passed away when Jones was just a sophomore in high school due to a heart condition and leaving his mother to raise Jones and his younger siblings. Therefore, the praise Martin gives to Jones is more or less indirect praise for Jones' mother as well.
"He comes from a great family," Martin said. "His mom is the figurehead of the family and she made sure her kids were hard workers and were successful. She did a really good job with Ronald."
When asked if Jones would have trouble adjusting to the NFL level, Martin wasn't concerned with anything on the football field, saying that he should have 'a relatively smooth transition.' But as for life in Tampa? There was one thing that was initially pretty widely covered about Jones that Martin brought up. Back during his first training camp in college, away from his native Texas, Jones had a little bit of trouble adjusting to life without his favorite restaurant: Whataburger. Martin teasingly said that may be the biggest adjustment Jones will have to make now as well.
"I don't think you guys have a Whataburger there but you guys are going to have to play in Texas somewhere where he can find a Whataburger," Martin joked. "You may have to watch him when he gets there, but you'll have a happy running back. Other than that, man he was awesome. Fun to be around."
Lucky for Jones, the Bucs play the Dallas Cowboys on December 23, just in time for Christmas.
View exclusive photos from week three of the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker