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Finding His Oasis

After being dismissed by Notre Dame and taking classes at Arizona State, Jones is back and running with Irish

October 17, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Julius Jones set a Notre Dame rushing record at Pittsburgh last week, a feat made possible by Jones' improved academic record last year.

At Arizona State.

Jones, a senior running back and kick returner, was dismissed from Notre Dame for the 2002 season because of academic problems. So he left South Bend, Ind., and headed to the desert, where he lived and trained with his brother, NFL running back Thomas Jones, while attending classes in Tempe, Ariz.

All the while, though, Jones planned on returning to Notre Dame to play his final season and graduate.

"The thing that motivated me was to come back here and finish what I started," he said during a teleconference with reporters earlier this week.

Jones, who had rushed for 152 yards in Notre Dame's first four games, erupted for 262 yards against No. 15 Pitt and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-14 victory.

Jones broke Notre Dame's single-game rushing record of 255 yards set by Vegas Ferguson against Georgia Tech in 1978.

His performance helped Notre Dame end a three-game losing streak that began with a 38-0 defeat at Michigan. The rejuvenated Fighting Irish are hoping that Jones continues his surge on Saturday when Notre Dame (2-3) plays fifth-ranked USC (5-1) at Notre Dame Stadium in the 75th game between the rivals.

Notre Dame is eager to avenge last year's 44-13 Trojan rout at the Coliseum, a game Jones missed while in academic exile. USC rolled up 610 yards, the most ever surrendered by Notre Dame.

"I was just watching the game [on television] and was kind of shocked that it was happening," Jones said. "Even though I wasn't a part of that loss, I kind of want to get revenge too."

Jones, 5 feet 10 and 205 pounds, rushes the ball with speed and power, qualities that also have helped put him within 101 yards of displacing 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown as Notre Dame's all-time kick- and punt-return yardage leader.

"He's not the kind of back that you hit and he just goes down," USC defensive tackle Mike Patterson said. "If you don't wrap him up, and he gets into the open field, he is going to take advantage of it."

Jones played more than any Notre Dame freshman in 1999 after arriving in South Bend from Powell Valley High in Big Stone Gap, Va.

In Notre Dame's 25-24 victory over USC that year, he rushed for 35 yards. He also had a 49-yard pass reception and totaled 110 yards in punt and kickoff returns.

Jones rushed for a team-best 657 yards in 2000, including 71 in 20 carries against USC in a 38-21 victory at the Coliseum.

As a junior, Jones once again led the Fighting Irish with 718 yards rushing. He gained 95 yards and scored a touchdown in 21 carries in Notre Dame's 27-16 victory over the Trojans at South Bend.

"Maybe he surprised Pitt a little bit," said Ed Orgeron, USC's defensive line coach. "He ain't going to surprise us."

Despite the academic problems, Jones was motivated to return by the encouragement he received from Coach Tyrone Willingham, who took over the Fighting Irish program after the 2001 season.

"He just told me, while I was away, to take care of my business and do the right things, and he would have a jersey here waiting for me," Jones said.

Willingham was cautiously optimistic that Jones would make it back.

"Even though the individual tells you those things, [that] he's following the plan ... until it really happens, you just have to wait and see," Willingham said.

Jones said he enjoyed simply being "a regular student" at Arizona State.

"I kind of laid low," he said. "I don't think anybody knew who I was, except for a couple of guys on their team I had class with."

When he returned to Notre Dame, Jones re-acclimated with new and former teammates almost immediately.

In a 29-26, season-opening overtime victory over Washington State, Jones rushed for 72 yards and scored a touchdown. But he gained only 80 yards in losses against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

After the Purdue loss, Notre Dame abandoned the passing attack it had employed against the Boilermakers and rushed the ball almost exclusively against Pitt.

Junior Ryan Grant, who remains listed as No. 1 on the depth chart, carried the ball 27 times for 84 yards. Jones carried 24 times and scored on touchdown runs of 25 and 49 yards. He also broke off a 61-yard run in the second half en route to his record-setting performance.

Now, Jones has seven regular-season games remaining in his Notre Dame career. The long road he traveled from South Bend to Arizona and back will make him value every one.

"It was very difficult for me to go through that, but I learned from it and I got the opportunity to come back here and play football again and go to school again," he said. "I just won't take anything for granted anymore."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Jones' Ascent

The game-by-game rushing statistics for Notre Dame's Julius Jones, who set a school record for rushing yardage last week:

*--* Date Opponent Att Yds TD Sept. 6 Washington State 11 72 1 Sept. 13 Michigan 11 42 0 Sept. 20 Michigan State 14 32 0 Sept. 27 Purdue 7 6 0 Oct. 11 Pittsburgh 24 262 2 Totals 67 414 3

*--*

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