- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

RICHMOND — All Matt Jones could do was watch as the Washington Redskins battled in their two most important games of the 2015 season.

Jones, who sustained a hip injury in Week 15, was inactive for the Redskins’ 38-24 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles the next week that clinched the NFC East title and the team’s place in the playoffs. Then he watched again, first the team’s meaningless regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, and more importantly, the Redskins’ 35-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

The fact that Jones, who rushed for 490 yards and three touchdowns, never saw the field for the final three games disappointed the Redskins’ young running back during his rookie season. The reality is that his body had been battered and broken down since the midway point of the season, a product of his poor eating habits and apathetic approach toward treatment — something players often struggle with in their transition from college.

“I learned the hard way about taking care of my body,” Jones said. “I had to learn that my off time is more than just sleeping. I’d just go to the room and knockout.”

The 23-year-old running back is determined not to make that same mistake as he enters his second season. The Redskins chose not to re-sign Alfred Morris, entrusting Jones with the responsibility to be the offense’s lead running back.

Concerns start with Jones’ ball-security issues in 2015. The Redskins also want to see Jones square his body against defenders and use his 6-foot-2, 232-pound frame to batter opponents, rather than bouncing outside. Most importantly, they are counting on the former Florida player to be healthy enough to withstand the workload he’s expected to carry.

Jones underwent minor surgery in the offseason in Philadelphia to repair his hip. He returned to Florida, then reported to Ashburn a month before the team was slated to report for offseason workouts on April 18. He worked with Kelvin Moore, who trains defensive end Chris Baker and other Redskins players, with an emphasis on fast-twitch exercises like jumping and running backward to improve his agility.

By the time organized team activities began in May, and now through training camp, Jones said he feels great and his teammates have noticed.

“He came back to camp in awesome shape, probably the best shape of his life,” left tackle Trent Williams said on Tuesday. “You can tell he worked extremely hard this summer. I think he’s poised, ready to take over that position. Obviously being a third-round pick, he has a wealth of talent, all he needs is those touches. I truly believe this can be his breakout year.”

Running backs coach Randy Jordan and the Redskins harped on Jones to improve his ball security in the offseason. Jones and his fellow running backs have been working with a football that has sensors in it that beeps when the proper pressure is not being applied.

Moore also incorporated specific exercises to help Jones, who fumbled five times last season, to improve his skills. In one exercise, Moore tethered himself to Jones with resistance secured to the running back’s wrist and elbow. While holding the football, Jones did hurdles, which forced him to tightly secure the football as Moore pulled on the bands.

“Everything about the ball I changed, the grip, the positioning, how I hold it,” Jones said during OTAs. “Everything I worked on is good for the way I hold the football now.”

Throughout OTAs, Jones also emphasized wanting to lower his pad level. Too many times last year, Jones bounced outside or out of bounds rather than grinding for a few extra yards. In practice on Monday, Jones did just that, cutting inside twice on runs designed to the outside. Still, he knows there is more work to be done.

“I feel like I’m doing OK right now, but I still wanna be better,” Jones said. “I’m taking that approach of getting north and south more instead of running sideways. Trying to take that approach in leveling off my pads. I’m still working on it.”

The challenge for the coaching staff, according to Jordan, is to not over-coach Jones, which Jordan said can sometimes be the biggest impediment for a young running back. Jones has appreciated Jordan’s approach and said it has helped him settle in during his second season.

“You know he’s not on you just to be on you,” Jones said of Jordan’s hard-nosed style. “He’s trying to be on you, but he’s trying to make you better. When Randy is on us and wants us to be better, I like that.

“Most of the time, when I do make a cut, he tries not to tell me to cut here and there. I relate to him more because he was a running back. When a runner makes a cut, it’s instinct. He doesn’t want to over-coach me where to run and then the play doesn’t work and we’re screwed, because he’s coaching me one way and I’m running another way. He’ll let me run my way until further notice.”

• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at agulizia@washingtontimes.com.

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