MCKINNEY, Texas -- Ronald Jones II took the handoff, ran behind the right side of his offensive line for a few yards and crossed the goal line before a single Penn State defender could get a hand on him. The fourth-quarter touchdown helped ignite the Trojans' Rose Bowl comeback, sealing 2016 as the preamble to a promising 2017 season with the realistic goal of a national championship.
Jones II trotted to the back of the end zone and stumbled, but as he did, he turned his eyes skyward and pointed. It was a tribute to the original Ronald Jones, who built a life as an Army sergeant and helped foster his son's love of football.
They were both always drawn more to players than teams and shared a love of stars like Robert Griffin III, LaDainian Tomlinson and running backs who happened to share their surname, like Julius and Thomas Jones. Ronald Jones took his son to his first NFL game when he was 10. He saw the Cowboys and Redskins play and dreamed. They got postgame field access, but a shy Ronald spent most of the time hiding behind his dad.
Jones was never quite as clean as his parents would have liked, but his closet stays organized by color and his shoes neatly lined up (most of the time) on the floor. They stayed close and spoke often after his parents separated and Jones moved to McKinney, Texas, with his mother and her five kids -- three adopted -- in 2008. His mother, Jackie Jones, spent her career in social work and knew the difficulties of the foster system. They had opened their home, but she was a single mom after moving. Ronald recognized she needed help more than he needed to stay with his father.
He ironed his younger brother Jalen's clothes and, before he left for college, taught the now-12-year-old how to do it himself. Once he turned 16, he shouldered the responsibility of shuttling his younger siblings to their respective activities.
Ronald Jones Sr. was open with his son about his heart problems and the fears that came with them. He was working at Camp Mabry in Austin as a logistics specialist, and for more than a year, he was on the list for a heart transplant. It never arrived.
In 2012, when Ronald Jones II was a sophomore at McKinney North, his father suffered a fatal heart attack.
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What's in a name? USC's starting running back has a few.
There's RoJo, the most common one used by friends and family. At USC, he's been dubbed The Texas Tesla and The Breeze. His youngest adopted sister, Jamyrah, went with "Ro-Ro" as a toddler who was not yet a gifted orator.
But as his football career blossomed in the wake of his father's death, Ronald Jones II grew, too. He wrote a eulogy for his father and planned to read it at the funeral, but when the time came to deliver it, he was too emotional. Attendees were able to read his words instead.
"Ronald Neville Jones. We both share the same name," he wrote. "But to me, your name is Dad, you are my father. I am your son. That's something that will never, ever change."
He outlined a promise that's largely defined his life since: He'd make his dad proud of him in every way he could. He's done everything he can in the five years since to do just that.
Last week, when Jones ran for 159 yards and scored three times on 18 carries in USC's win over Western Michigan, Jackie Jones reminded her son of that promise, and the progress he's made in fulfilling it.
She reminded him of the gap-toothed grin he loved.
"He'd be smiling ear to ear right now," she told him. "You know that?"
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This season is the first that Jones, who's up to 208 pounds from the 180-ish he played at in high school, entered the season as the Trojans' full-time starting running back.
This Saturday, No. 16 USC faces its first major road block on the path to the playoff when its hosts No. 14 Stanford. Jones averaged more than six yards per carry in each of his first two seasons, topping 2,000 yards in the first two years combined. In 2015, he joined LenDale White as the only true freshmen to ever lead USC in rushing.
The Trojans need more from him this year, and he has a goal of 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns, short of the goal his grandmother laid out for him: 2,000 yards.
"He reminds you of Jamaal Charles. He's more physical than people give him credit for," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I think he was overshadowed last year. The great run they had at the end of the year, he was a big part of that."
It almost didn't happen. When Jones was still an anonymous freshman back in 2015, he made viral headlines for complaining of BBQ/Whataburger-based homesickness.
"I knew it would be hard. He's a homebody and he'd never really spent time away from home before that," Jackie Jones said. "And yes, the food was a problem. He's a beef eater."
It ran much deeper, though. Jones was so intent on coming home, his mother even reached out to TCU running backs Curtis Luper about whether or not the Horned Frogs would be interested in adding him to the roster. They were, but Jackie Jones wanted her son to stay where he fought to go.
When he was first being recruited, Jones locked in on Oklahoma State. His sister Montinique, now an Austin-based writer who also works for the University of Texas, was a student in Stillwater. He knew the town, and it was inside the "four- or five-hour drive" radius where his mother wanted him to attend college.
"The thing about Ronald," his high school coach Mike Fecci said, "is he's never really known just how good he is."
It was an asset at home and with his teammates, but in the college selection process, it limited him.
USC kept pressing, and Fecci made it clear: Yes, USC is really interested in you and. yes, you could really play there. So were all the other schools that wouldn't stop calling him. So Jones decommitted from Oklahoma State and started exploring the bigger schools he'd heard about but didn't know much about. Jackie Jones played the reverse psychology card and encouraged him to explore other schools like USC and Notre Dame. It backfired when they both fell in love with USC on his official visit.
She leaned on those memories when he called her a few weeks into his first preseason camp in 2015, ready to come home.
"I talked him out of it," Jackie Jones said. "I told him, 'No. You're going to stay put.'"
It's paid off.
Jones ran for 169 yards on just 12 total carries in USC's first two games in 2015, scoring twice. By the second half of his sophomore year, he was the bell-cow back, routinely carrying the ball 18 times a game, something he'd done just twice as a freshman.
He ran for 223 yards in a win over Cal, and a week later, he followed it up with 171 yards and four touchdowns against Oregon. USC turned a disastrous 1-3 start into a 10-3 final record with an unlikely nine-game winning streak, fueled by its new duo in the offensive backfield: Jones and quarterback Sam Darnold.
"You hold your breath every time he touches the ball," USC coach Clay Helton said.
For all the attention cast on Darnold, Jones was an integral piece of the turnaround, and if USC makes a run to the title this year, he'll be a big reason why. The Trojans want to use him more in the passing game this year after he caught just 18 passes in his first two seasons. Last week, he turned his only reception into a 19-yard gain.
"Winning a national title is important to him," Jackie Jones said. "If that doesn't happen, I think he's probably coming back next year."
It's welcome news for a mom hoping to go 2-for-2 for her kids hanging college diplomas on her wall. And this year, Jones' dreads are back. Taking care of them got to be too much work once he moved away, but he found a new barber in LA and grew them back out. He's always compared himself to Samson and believes they give him strength, just like he thought his Nikes made him run faster as a kid.
On days Ronald Jones II wants to feel closer to Ronald Jones Sr., he slips his father's dog tags around his neck. He's done it since he inherited them. When he clasps them, he hears his father's words.
What's in a name? In his father's eulogy, Jones II made it clear.
"You always gave me the confidence that I could do anything, if I put my mind to it," he wrote. "Trust me. I will do my duty. Just give me the strength."