In Friday’s post about the top 10 players for Notre Dame in 2011, I eluded to a new series of posts that we’d be rolling out here at UHND over the next few weeks and today we’re kicking off our countdown of the top 11 players to play for Notre Dame over the last 11 years starting with a running back who had the talent to be ranked much higher on this list – Julius Jones.
First off, why are we doing a top 11 list? Well, there have been 11 seasons since the year started to begin with a two and it was hard enough to come up with a list that only included 10 players so we ran with 11. All of the posts in this series will follow this format and we’ll unveil a new post every week day at noon eastern until we reach #1 in addition to our normal posts that we’ve been doing as we prepare for the 2011 season.
Notre Dame career summary
Jones showed flashes of big play ability almost immediately as a freshman in 1999 showing the kind of burst and speed at the running back position that Notre Dame hadn’t seen in years. Jones worked his way up the depth chart throughout the season behind starter Tony Fisher and had his breakout performance in the eighth game of the season with 146 yards and a touchdown against Navy. That was his only 100 yard performance of the season, but all signs pointed to big things in the near future for Jones.
Things looked so promising for Jones in fact that Athlon Sports predicted he would be on the NFL All Decade Team for 2000-2009 in their pre-season magazine before Jones’ sophomore year at Notre Dame.
As a sophomore Jones led Notre Dame in rushing attempts with 162, but Bob Davie and Kevin Rogers used a three back system with Jones, Fisher, and Terrance Howard. As a result, Jones only topped the 100 yard plateau three times in 2000 and only carried the ball 20 or more times four times. Jones, however, continued to make his impact felt on kick returns as a sophomore with his signature play in a Notre Dame uniform. With Notre Dame trailing #1 ranked Nebraska 21-7 midway through the third quarter, Jones fielded a Cornhusker kickoff at the goal line and took it the distance to bring Notre Dame right back into the game.
Jones shared the backfield with Fisher and Howard again in 2001 on a bad Notre Dame offense that struggled to do much of anything in Bob Davie’s final season. Jones only eclipsed 100 yards twice as a junior despite carrying the ball more than 20 times in five games.
With Fisher and Howard gone in 2002, many expected Jones to finally have his breakout season under first year head coach Tyrone Willingham. Jones, however, was an academic casualty for the 2002 season and spent the year getting his grades in order before being able to rejoin the team in 2003. Jones departure in 2002 opened the door for Ryan Grant and Grant, a sophomore at the time, seized the opportunity. Grant topped 1,000 yards for the only time in his Notre Dame career and carried the ball 261 times.
Jones ended up getting his grades where they needed to be and was back with Notre Dame in 2003 but started the season behind Grant on the depth chart. Despite looking much more like a starter than Grant in 2003, it took five games and a 262 yard performance against Pitt, a Notre Dame single game record, from Jones before Willingham inserted him into the starting lineup. Once he was in the starting lineup, Jones went on a tear with three 200 yard performances while turning in one of the best single seasons ever by an Irish running back. By the end of the year, Jones racked up 1,268 yards and averaged a little over 5.5 yards per carry for the season.
Why Julius Jones made the list
When you look back at the running backs to play for Notre Dame over the last 11 years only a few really stand out. Grant had a great year in 2002, but most of his success has come in the pros. Darius Walker had a great career with two 1,000 yard seasons, but a lot of his success can be attributed to a lack of depth behind him while Jones had to fight for carries with Fisher and Howard early in his career and then Grant in 2003 when it was clear that Jones should have been starting all along. Jones also made his presence felt on special teams – an area Walker never played a role in.
Had Jones been a featured back for Notre Dame over the course of his career, his numbers would look much different. He would most certainly be higher than 5th all time in rushing yards at Notre Dame and his impressive 2003 season would have been ever more outstanding if he started 12 games instead of just seven. Jones also played on some really poor Notre Dame teams that didn’t force defenses to really respect the passing game unlike Walker who played on two of most prolific passing offenses Notre Dame has ever seen in 2005 and 2006.
Until Cierre Wood started ripping off some long touchdown runs this past season, Jones was also the only big play running back for the Irish over the last 10 years. Walker was a very productive back, but he was never a real threat to take it the distance on any given carry. Ditto for Grant. Armando Allen looked like he might be that big play back, but injuries slowed him throughout his four years at Notre Dame. Jones, however, had at least one 50 yard run in each of his final three seasons with the Irish.
Both Jones’ collegiate and pro careers will always be marked with “what ifs”, but over the last 10 years, Notre Dame simply hasn’t had a running back better than Jones.
Notable performances, records & awards at Notre Dame
- Holds Notre Dame single game rushing record with 262 yards on 24 carries against Pittsburgh in 2003.
- All time career leader in all purpose yards at Notre Dame with 5,462 yards – 3,108 rushing, 250 receiving, 426 on punt returns, and 1,678 on kick returns.
- Had three of the top 10 single game rushing totals all during the 2003 season – 262 against Pitt (#1), 221 yards against Navy (#6), and 218 yards against Stanford (#8).
- Tied with Autry Denson for fourth most yards in a single season with 1,268 in 2003.
- Ranks 5th all time in rushing yards at Notre Dame with 3,018 behind Denson, Allen Pinkett, Vegas Ferguson, and Darius Walker.
- 9th all time in rushing touchdowns with 26.
- Career leader in kick returns (72) and kick return yardage (1,678)
- Return kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska in 2000 tying a Notre Dame record for longest return of any kind.
Post Notre Dame career
Jones was drafted in the second round of 2004 NFL Draft #43 overall by the Dallas Cowboys and despite suffering through a few injuries during his rookie season, Jones ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns on Thanksgiving Day to win Fox’s annual “Galloping Gobbler” award. He only played in eight games as a rookie in 2004, but still ran for 819 yards and seven touchdowns and had Dallas fans thinking they had found their replacement for Emmitt Smith. Unfortunately for Jones, injuries and the emergence of Marion Barber limited his impact in Dallas and the seven touchdowns he scored as a rookie are still a career high.
In 2006, Jones recorded his first and only 1,000 yard season with 1,084 yards on a career high 267 carries. Since 2006, however, Jones hasn’t run for more than 698 yards in a single season. In 2008, Jones signed a free agent deal with the Seahawks to compete for the starting running back spot, but in three seasons in Seattle, Jones never carried the ball more than 177 times.
This past summer Jones restructured his contract with Seattle in order to remain on the team, but he ended up being cut during the season after Seattle traded for former Buffalo running back Marshawn Lynch. Jones caught on with the Saints after they experienced a rash of injuries at running back and ended up scoring two touchdowns against Seattle in the Saints upset loss to the Seahawks in January.
At 29 yards old, Jones can still help out a NFL team at the running back position and with the likely departure of Reggie Bush via free agency (if/when a new collective bargaining agreement is in place) there could be more carries for him in New Orleans in 2011.
Best of the 2000’s