FOOTBALL: Jones back practicing
By ANDREW SOUKUP
Associate Sports Editor
It was a familiar sight, almost.
In the throng of players coming from the football practice fields behind Moose Krause Stadium to the locker rooms inside Notre Dame Stadium, running back Julius Jones walked slowly by himself. He clutched his helmet in both hands and stared at the ground five feet in front of him. The difference from last week was that on Monday afternoon Jones was wearing shoulder pads. Yesterday's practice was the first time in a week Jones carried the ball in practice, and he was more than ready to get back in the Irish tail back rotation.
"It felt great," he said. "I've been out for about a week now, and so I was just resting it." The junior running back's return to practice yesterday was just the latest bit of good news for an Irish tailback corps that has been decimated by preseason injuries. In addition to Jones, both Terrance Howard and Tony Fisher have missed practice time this fall because of various injuries. Jones and Fisher had pulled groins, and Howard a pulled hamstring. In fact, during the first week of practice, so many tailbacks were injured that at one point, sixth string freshman Marcus Wilson was handling all the rushing duties Ñ until he was injured as well.
"All those guys [Jones, Howard, and Fisher] have been hurt during this preseason," running backs coach Desmond Robinson said. "Each one of those three guys have missed some practice time because of injury, and we just try to pick up from there and go forward."
The Notre Dame backfield, rated seventh in the nation by The Sporting News, is not only diverse, but talented too. Fisher, who rushed for 607 yards last season, is a 2001 Doak Walker Award candidate. Jones, Notre Dame's leading rusher last year, is an All-American candidate. But since Fisher and Jones were held out of spring practice and have been injured this fall, Robinson said Howard would be the starter for Saturday's season opener, a testament to just how close the three tailbacks are in terms of talent. No matter who starts Saturday, Davie has said that all three tailbacks will end up with the same number of carries.
There still seems, however, to be a special focus on Jones. His older brother, Thomas, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft, has called Julius the better running back of the two. He's been named to Athlon's NFL All-Decade team for 2000-2009, joining the Colts' Edgerrin James in the backfield. He's listed as Notre Dame's No. 1 kick returner, and since special teams were such an integral part of Notre Dame's 9-3 campaign in 2000, Robinson was glad to have him back on the practice field.
"For the first day back, he did some things well," he said. "He didn't try to push it too far because we don't know if he's one hundred percent, but he worked pretty hard out there today."
But while Jones confidently claims he will be ready for Saturday's game against No. 4 Nebraska, Davie is not so sure.
"At least he's out there in pads, and he's able to return punts and kickoffs for us," Davie said. "But he didn't cut it loose and go full speed. It's good to have him out there, but we'll know a little more as the week goes on.
Monday's practice was not full contact, and Jones said that he looks forward to the all-out practices against the first-team defense that will come later in the week. For now, Irish coaches are limiting what he does in practice, and Robinson went so far as to suggest that Jones will not see as much playing time on Saturday as the running back thought he would.
"I don't foresee him doing a whole lot because of his condition," said
Robinson. "I don't know what kind of shape he's in. He'll play, and we'll take that play by play. I wouldn't want to put a number on the number of plays." Regardless of how many carries Jones gets on Saturday, he is glad to be back out on the practice field does not feel he has lost anything.
"I wasn't rusty," he said. "It felt good. The more reps you get, the better it is with the linemen. It's an adjustment especially with our plays and it helped for me to get back out there."
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, September 4, 2001