- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

There’s no mistaking Alfred Morris‘ role in the Washington Redskins’ offense.

Ever since his unforgettable rookie season in 2012, when he broke the Redskins’ single-season rushing record with 1,613 yards, he’s been the team’s go-to back and ranked among the NFL’s top 10 in rushing attempts the last three seasons.

Yet with the short shelf life and unforgiving nature of the running back position, and Morris entering a pivotal year in which his rookie contract is set to expire, it’d be helpful to spare the 26-year-old a 300-carry season.

Since Morris arrived in Washington, the most any other running back on the team has carried the ball is 62 times, which Roy Helu did in 2013.

This season, the Redskins may have found the right compliment to Morris in rookie Matt Jones. Jones has put together an impressive preseason with a team-best 139 yards while averaging 7.0 yards per carry.

“You have a guy that’s outstanding on the collegiate level, but in the NFL, maybe he just falls to the wayside. Not Matt,” Morris said. “I have no doubts about him at all. He’s developed so much faster than I have. He’s made a lot of plays this preseason. It’s going to be interesting this year to rotate both of us in there and making it work, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Adding a ‘violent’ runner

Jones, a third-round draft pick out of Florida, quickly established himself in the preseason as a bruising back who ran toward contact, not away from it.
Standing 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, Jones uses his body to batter opposing tacklers. His most impressive showing was in the team’s third preseason game, against the Baltimore Ravens, when he rushed for 57 yards on eight carries.

In the third quarter, he shed three tacklers on his way to a 13-yard gain.
The following play, on third-and-1, Jones finished a 14-yard run by pin-balling into defensive back Tray Walker.

The prior week, during the team’s 21-17 win against the Detroit Lions, Jones pounded a one-yard touchdown run. Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead hit Jones in the backfield around the three-yard line, but Jones kept his legs moving and lurched forward for the score.

If one play encapsulated Jones‘ preseason development since training camp, that may have been it. As Jones was adjusting to life in the NFL, he was often hesitant to finish runs early in camp.

“A lot of the times in these practices you’re not sure how to finish runs, but we want him to finish violently,” coach Jay Gruden said. “I just think probably the tempo. [He’s] young. That’s probably how they did it in college, and he’s thinking that he gets five, six yards and he’s done for the day, but we want him to finish the runs.”

That narrative has since changed. Jones has been running so hard, the team has made an effort to give him rest in order to get his body right. He did not practice on the Monday and Tuesday heading into the team’s preseason finale and didn’t play in the final game against the Jaguars either — a clear indication of Jones‘ value to the team.

After Jones sat out the final preseason game against the Jaguars, he reflected on the progress he’s made since being drafted and the role he’s carved out for himself on the Redskins.

“I feel good man,” Jones said. “I feel like I got better this whole preseason, thanks to Alfred, [fullback Darrel Young], Coach. Everyone’s got me better. My defense got me better.

“Just being behind Alfred, trying to take a load off him, keep him rolling through the season, I feel like it could be a big role for me and I’m going to be behind him 100 percent. If he goes down, I’ll be ready to go, God forbid. I’m like his little brother in the backfield right now.”

Making a tough transition

Jones‘ reputation as a hard-nosed runner preceded his arrival in Washington. He rushed for 1,431 yards and 11 touchdowns in 28 games with the Gators, and his performance during the preseason showed teammates how effective he can be.

“He’s a hard runner, he’s smart and he makes something out of nothing all the time,” Morris said. “I think he can come off the bench, be a good option for us, a good change-of-pace guy in certain ways. He has a unique skill set for a bigger guy. It’s just impressive. If I need a breather or anything, he’ll be the guy for the job.”

In Morris‘ rookie season, Helu was placed on injured reserve after straining his Achilles and experiencing turf toe. Morris carried the ball 335 times, the third-most in the league. Robert Griffin III rushed 120 times.

In the last two seasons, Helu was a serviceable third-down back who made an impact catching passes out of the backfield. In 14 games last season, he rushed for 216 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 42 passes for 477 yards and two scores. However, Helu, who signed a two-year, $4.1 million contract with his hometown Oakland Raiders in March, struggled at times in pass protection.

Morris said picking up blitzes is the hardest transition for any rookie running back — something he noted Jones has picked up particularly well.

“Some of those backside corners, defenses do a good job disguising and he did a good job of noticing and picking it up,” Morris said. “So, I was like, ‘This kid, he’s good, he’s going to be all right.’

“From me being a rookie to how he’s adapted to being a rookie, he’s light years ahead of where I was picking up blitzes.”

Brian White, Jones‘ running backs coach at Florida, has seen first-hand how physical Jones can be when protecting the quarterback in the backfield. White said that starts with his brain, not his bulking frame.

“He’s a very intelligent guy, he processes information extremely fast,” said White, now the wide receivers coach at Boston College. “He plays with live eyes, so he understands protections. He’s just a really bright guy.”

Hoping to find success

Jones has all the motivation he needs to succeed in his rookie season after a college career at Florida that wasn’t exactly what he was hoping it would be.
He entered his sophomore season as the team’s lead back, only to tear a meniscus in his left knee. Jones played in five games, injuring himself against LSU and missing the remainder of the season. He needed two surgeries to repair the knee before his junior season.

“That’s why I’ve got a ton of a chips on my shoulder,” Jones said. “My college career wasn’t what I wanted to be, and I thank God for it, but I really want to have a successful career in the NFL, so that’s why I’m really going even harder because I didn’t have the college career that I wanted.”

It wasn’t so much the injuries that bothered Jones. He didn’t feel like the Gators’ offense was the best fit for his running style.

“I love this offense,” Jones said. “I’m more downhill. I feel like I can do what I want to.”

It’s difficult to put much stock in preseason numbers, though Jones‘ stats show promise for his rookie season. Even more encouraging than Jones‘ preseason performance is the sheer confidence the organization appears to have in the young back.

“I think they’ll complement each other very well,” offensive coordinator Sean McVay said of Morris and Jones. “We know the type of player that Alfred’s been for the last handful of years, and we have a lot of confidence in him. We’re very excited about what [Jones is] able to do and the balance that he runs with and how powerful he is, so he’s going to be a very big part of what we do as well.”

Earlier in training camp, Gruden said if Jones earned his reps, then he would get his fair share of carries.

Over a month later, Jones has earned every bit of the work he’s gotten in the preseason. Now it’s time for Jones to prove he can do it when it really counts.

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