Sophomore running back Amare Jones streaked by a defensive back on the opening day of Tulane’s preseason drills, ran under a perfect pass from Justin McMillan, reached up for the easy touchdown … and dropped the ball.
Furious, he plopped down for five push-ups when he returned to the sideline even before coaches approached him.
If you are waiting for Jones to make another mistake, it might be a while. No one is generating more buzz with teammates than Jones is as a breakthrough performer.
At a position loaded with proven producers, including 1,134-yard rusher Darius Bradwell and big-play specialist Corey Dauphine (eight carries of 30 or more yards) the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Jones might make the largest jump from 2018 to 2019, morphing from an periphery player (47 carries, 216 yards) to one of the offense’s centerpieces.
“He’s a stud now,” coach Willie Fritz said at media day. “I mean, this guy can make people miss and he’s got an incredible football I.Q. He’s got to touch the ball 10 to 15 times a game. He’s explosive.”
After setting a school record by averaging 27.9 yards on kickoff returns as a freshman, Jones gave a preview of what he could do out of the backfield in the Cure Bowl against UL.
On his first carry, he took a direct snap and rushed 33 yards, setting up an early touchdown.
On his second attempt, he was hemmed in on first-and-goal from the 1, bounced outside and cut between pursuing defenders for a touchdown.
He finished with a career-high 63 yards on six carries as a fourth-string back.
On Wednesday, McMillan gave him the ball on the initial play of the first 11-on-11 drill in camp, and he accelerated through a hole with plenty of momentum.
“I keep my eye on him every time he touches the ball,” defensive tackle De’Andre Williams said. “I might be taking a little meeting with (line) coach (Kevin Peoples), but whenever I see him run up the sideline, I get up and cheer that man on. He’s young, but he’s got so much talent and he hasn’t even touched his peak.”
Jones needed time to adjust because he never played running back at Frisco (Texas) Heritage High in the Dallas metroplex, starting at quarterback from his sophomore through his senior year. He also was rusty after missing the second half of 2017 with a broken ankle.
“It took probably until midseason to get comfortable,” he said. “That’s when I really started to talk to everybody else on the team. The game was way faster, but I’m an athlete, so I did what it takes.”
Growing up, he idolized LaDainian Tomlinson, a fellow Texan who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017 after rushing for 13,684 career yards. At Tulane, Jones gravitated towards another Texan when McMillan transferred from LSU as a graduate student last August.
Both are from the Dallas area and say they developed a brotherly relationship, with McMillan taking Jones under his wing.
“Honestly I feel like he’s going to be one of the best players in the (American Athletic) conference with ease,” McMillan said. “I need to feed him. It’s up to me to get him the ball.”
Fritz ticked off the list of Jones’ attributes, starting with the ability to make guys miss and moving on to his blocking ability, his aptitude for tackling on kick coverage, his receiving skills, his kick returning and his football I.Q. Offensive coordinator Will Hall picked up where Fritz left off.
“He’s the rare type of guy that you can just tell him something and he can take it to the field and do it right then,” Hall said. “Most kids, you teach it to them, you get on the grease board and show it to them, you show them some clips and then you go outside, walk through it and run it in team. Amare can skip a lot of those steps. He’s just a really savvy player with a great skill set.”
The one thing Jones shies away from is talking himself up. He admits he has good vision and moves, but he is not into bold proclamations.
“I’m just expecting to help the team in whatever way I can,” he said. “If that’s in practice or me getting the ball (in games) and scoring, I’m willing to do it.”
He lets teammates and coaches do most of the boasting for him, summing up their voluminous praise with a simple, one-word self-assessment.
Fritz said redshirt freshman receiver Sorrell Brown, who missed 2018 after injuring a knee in preseason camp, will be out at least the first two weeks this August because he banged his other knee recently. … Virginia grad transfer Ben Knutson received first-team reps at right offensive guard Thursday. … Willie Langham and Jaylon Monroe have split time with the first unit at cornerback in the first two days of practice.
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