Ronald Jones’ Return to Texas

McKinney’s own Ronald Jones heads home for Whataburger and a start to his hopeful, breakout season

(This story was also published on Annenberg Media)

Just three miles south of North McKinney High School in Texas, where USC running back Ronald Jones II played for three years, there’s a Whataburger restaurant along Central Express Highway with the lyrics of a popular Texas song painted along its walls.

“The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.”

Deep in the heart of Texas is an apt way to describe the town of McKinney. Pitted in between Dallas and the border the state shares with Oklahoma, it boasts 161,000 residents as of January 2016 and is 63 square miles in size. In 2014, Money Magazine called it “The Best City to Live in America.”

For outsiders and arbitrary rankings, McKinney could be known for many things; its quaint downtown area, its rising job growth thanks to the arrival of manufacturing company Raytheon, or even its Victorian-style homes.

But for USC’s next star running back, who is ready to make his return to Texas ahead of the Trojans’ showdown with Alabama at AT&T Stadium, McKinney is home; the town where he was born and grew up, and the town that became his proving ground before being recruited by the likes of Notre Dame, Alabama and USC.

“I’m excited,” he said said over and over about going back to his home state. “Seeing my mom, my sisters, everybody … it’s going to be a blast.”

Fueled by a diet that included “three to five” trips per week to Whataburger according to him, Jones ran for nearly 5,000 yards on the ground and amassed 76 touchdowns while at McKinney North. In his three-year career there, his average gain on a carry was a whopping 9.9 yards.

Upon arriving at USC and getting time to play behind running backs Tre Madden and Justin Davis, Jones quickly made one particular word synonymous with his name: Explosiveness. His formal introduction to the Coliseum crowd was a 44-yard score in the season opener.

“Most times last year, when I came into the game I was doing a lot of outside stuff … You get five, three, six, ten, twelve [yards] and then you break loose,” Jones explained with a grin that said it all. It’s as if he is running through the play in his mind, seeing himself through the tackles, his legs unraveling as he hits the open field and prances toward the end zone untouched.

In his freshman season, Jones scored eight touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He finished with a total of 987 yards on the ground, breaking the freshman rushing record previously set by Charles White in 1976.

As Jones’ sophomore season is set to begin, and new head coach Clay Helton beckons for USC to be a team that relies on the run, the question becomes: What will Jones do for an encore?

“I think I’m a lot more confident in my game this year,” Jones said. “I’m not really a power back, I don’t like to be in between the tackles, but it’s good to switch it up and always keep the defense guessing.”

More speed, more power and, according to new running backs coach, Tommie Robinson, more focus on fulfilling duties that don’t necessarily involve running the ball.

“He’s a really good runner,” said Robinson. “What he has improved on since I’ve been here is the other aspects of the game, mainly the blocking and protection. Coming out of high school, normally you don’t have those techniques down.”

Jones can attest to this. He said that at McKinney he only caught the ball a handful of times, that facet of the game being something that was never truly emphasized until he arrived at USC, where he’s improved tremendously in his quest to become an all-around back.

“I know he can go in there and do just as good or even better than I would.” — Starting RB Justin Davis

This year, though he is still slotted as the No. 2 back behind the senior Davis, the role and the number of carries are expected to increase, much to the delight of the many USC fans who clamored for him to get more carries last season.

“That’s true? That’s funny,” chuckled Jones incredulously when I asked him if he had heard.

From the first game he was able to be interviewed last season, the calm and composed Jones made his stance known: He had been homesick, and he missed Whataburger the most. While becoming instantly relatable with his fast food affinity, his opinion ran counter to the Southern California crowd.

“It’s too far” and just “isn’t as good,” he had said back then about In-N-Out.

For Jones, the love for Whataburger is as deep as the connection to McKinney, and with a location just three miles away from where he learned, practiced and played football in high school, the trip to that venue became an inevitable ritual.

“It was my pre-game meal and my post-game meal,” he said. “Whenever I had a chance, I got it.”
Whataburger in McKinney, Texas. (Photo Credit; Brenda Saenz/Picasa)

Jones said he has dropped to an all-time low of 6% body fat this season, and though he won’t credit that to the lack of Whataburgers on the West Coast, he is crediting his growth to the improved physique. “Add muscle, gain weight,” the 6-foot 1-inch, 195-pound back said.

His food opinion notwithstanding, Jones is certainly poised for a breakout season on the field. And now, the big and bright star born deep in the heart of Texas has a chance to kick off his second campaign a mere 50 miles from the place he calls home, at the stadium he was always so close to but never had the chance to play in.

Win or lose, however, he’s making sure his trip back to Texas is not without a stop at his favorite place.

“I’m definitely going to get Whataburger before the game, all of that. My whole family will be there, and then playing the defending national champions? You can’t thank the football gods enough.”