- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

ASHBURN — The worst days during Matt Jones‘ rookie season were the ones after he fumbled. Once he put the ball on the ground, the third-round draft pick out of Florida visualized a decreased role for himself as he split carries with former running back Alfred Morris.

Then Jones would respond with a big game like he did in Week 11 against the New Orleans Saints. After fumbling the previous week against the New England Patriots, Jones rushed 11 times for 56 yards and caught three passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

Yet even those days were bad, too, because then Jones would face his own unrealistic expectations. The following week, he failed to gain a yard on five carries and fumbled in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.

“I feel like I had some great games, and I put so much pressure on myself to have a great game and then had something bad and I got real low on myself,” Jones said. “I had too many lows rather than highs last year.”

Jones fumbled five times last season and rushed for 490 yards and three touchdowns. He caught 19 passes for 304 yards and excelled as a pass protector. The Redskins chose not to bring back Morris, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys, after four seasons, entrusting Jones as their lead running back.

Whether he can make that jump hinges largely on his improved ball security — something Jones said he worked tirelessly on in the offseason. Equally as important, though, will be the way he leads the group, which can be a daunting task for a 23-year-old in his second season.

Third-year running back Chris Thompson said he’s already seen a dramatic change in Jones‘ approach, which he thinks will help him succeed. Thompson, 25, has the most experience out of the Redskins’ young group of running backs, but is out until training camp as he recovers from offseason surgery on his left shoulder.

That leaves Jones as the veteran among rookies such as Keith Marshall and Robert Kelley, as well as former college teammate Mack Brown, who spent last year on the practice squad.

“He’s becoming more of a leader which is rare to see from a young guy,” Thompson said. “He’s really helping out a lot of the young guys now. You can see he’s real confident with the role. I don’t think it really hit him that he’s the guy, but the way he’s carrying himself, he’s filling that role well.

“Even in practice, he’s been different. He had a run today that was pretty bad and he’ll say it, but after that, he moved on.”

To improve his ball security, Jones changed his grip and the way he holds the football, which is something he didn’t pay much attention to while in college.

He has also made an effort to improve his running style by squaring his 6-foot-2, 232-pound frame and cutting inside against defenders, rather than bouncing to the outside like he did so comfortably last season.

“That’s something we’re definitely working on. That’s what I call leveling off, working downhill faster and not waiting on a cut to happen,” Jones said. “I feel like a big part of my game is when I got my shoulders square and running downhill and [faced] a DB or something. It’s difficult for them to tackle me.”

For now, it’s hard for coaches to get an accurate read on the running game because of the restrictions in place that prohibit contact during offseason workouts. When the time comes, coach Jay Gruden is confident Jones can succeed as the lead running back.

“He better be able to carry it now while we’re not tackling him. If he’s putting the ball down now, we have problems,” Gruden joked. “It’s been talked about and worked on. Fundamentally, we drill him. We have a special ball for him that will help him out, and mainly to focus on the ball not when in contact or the line scrimmage, but outside of contact. He’s a diligent guy working hard and he’ll get it corrected.”

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