Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 16 of 47 DECEMBER 2019 17 of personal and financial sacrifices to get Jones into IMG Academy, about 40 miles south of St. Petersburg. IMG is an elite boarding school that houses and trains top athletes from all over the country. Tuition is nearly $70,000 a year, but Jones said the ex- perience and coaching he received during his two and half years there was priceless. During Jones' two years at IMG, he averaged 8.9 yards per carry while rushing for 1,285 yards and scoring 25 touchdowns. After his senior season there, Jones joined 2015 IMG teammates Shea Patterson (now Michigan's starting quarterback) and former Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta (now with the NFL's Detroit Lions) as the first IMG players to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Game. Also a baseball prodigy — many believed good enough to someday pursue a professional career — Jones played 18 games at IMG as a junior and batted .491 (26 of 53) with nine RBI, 11 stolen bases and 16 runs scored before turning his full atten- tion to football. And while Jones is appreciative of his athletic accomplishments at IMG, he insists that sports were only one part of his ex- p e r i e n c e t h e r e . J o n e s e x p l a i n e d that the structure of boarding and liv- ing independently Mondays through F r i d a y s a t I M G equipped him well for the transition to college. " M y t i m e [ a t IMG] taught me how to grow up quickly and learn the process of be- ing a player and a student," he said, "just learning how to balance all the responsibilities I will face throughout my life." Jones was the initial Irish commit to what is becoming a steady stream of Notre Dame players from IMG. Irish junior offensive tackle Robert Hainsey and sophomore defensive back Houston Griffith are both IMG grads, and so is safety Isaiah Pryor, who will transfer to Notre Dame from Ohio State as a graduate stu- dent this January. Jones and Hainsey played together at IMG in 2015. "The way Tony runs the ball is the way I think a running back should run the ball," Hainsey said. "He's going to run past you, through you, over you, it doesn't matter. That's what I love about him in the backfield." WAITING HIS TURN Jones was rated as one of the top running back recruits in the country coming out of IMG, but he still had to pay his dues and bide his time when he arrived at Notre Dame in the sum- mer of 2016. The newest addition to an already deep stable of Irish running backs that included Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, Jones was relegated to scout team duties and didn't play during his freshman season. As a sophomore in 2017, Jones rushed for 232 yards and three touch- downs, but was overshadowed by Adams who rushed for more than 1,400 yards and even garnered some brief Heisman chatter. With Adams off to the NFL, Jones hoped that his junior season in 2018 would be his time to shine. But similarly to 2017, senior run- ning back Dexter Williams emerged in 2018, played in front of Jones and finished that season with 995 rushing yards, despite miss- ing four games. Jones still man- aged 392 rushing yards on 83 car- ries in 2018, but he wanted more, espe- cially as a senior in 2019. "I know my po- tential," he said. "But I also knew that the guys in front of me were re- ally good, they were great leaders and they were great players. "I just always had to be ready when my number was called, and I think I have been." Jones' patience finally brought some payoff this year. During a mid-season stretch against Virginia, Bowling Green and USC, Jones recorded three straight 100-yard games — including his career-high 176 yards against the Trojans. Jones has led the Irish in rushing all sea- son, and had 672 yards entering the regular-season finale at Stanford. "Gimme a boatload of Tony Jone- ses," head coach Brian Kelly said, "and I'll take them in a heartbeat." With the 2019 regular season complete and only a bowl game re- maining, Jones faces a decision on whether to return to Notre Dame for a fifth season. "I haven't thought about any of that stuff, really," said Jones, when asked about his plans for 2020. "I'm just trying to finish this season out strong with my teammates and I'll make my decision sooner or later." In the meantime, Jones is going to savor every last moment of this sea- son, in case it's his last. "This is a dream come true. Being the starting running back at such a prestigious school, it's showing that my hard work is paying off," Jones said. "There have been a lot of ups and downs, but Notre Dame has helped me grow as a man and as a player." ✦ "I know my potential. But I also knew that the guys in front of me were really good, they were great leaders and they were great players. I just always had to be ready when my number was called, and I think I have been." JONES Entering the regular-season finale at Stanford, Jones led the Irish in rushing with 672 yards, was averaging 5.6 yards per carry and had scored five touchdowns. PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS

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