Dec. 29, 2000
By TOM COYNE
TEMPE, Ariz. - Notre Dame running back Julius Jones is pain-free for the first time this season. That presents a dilemma for both the Irish and Oregon State coaching staffs heading into the Fiesta Bowl on Monday.
"Any time a good back is healthy and he hasn't been, that has got to be a concern," Oregon State defensive coordinator Craig Bray said. "I didn't know he was injured. The films I'd seen him play he looked pretty good."
Notre Dame coaches have a more pleasant problem of trying to keep Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard happy with their playing time now that Jones is back at full strength. Offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said the Irish will continue to rotate the three.
"We hope it doesn't change. I think when all three of us play we tend to put up a lot of points and a lot of yards. Hopefully, nothing changes," tailback Tony Fisher said.
Fisher, a junior, was the returning starter heading into this season after rushing for 763 yards last season. But the Irish coaches decided early on they wanted to make Jones the featured back. The problem was, Jones was bothered with hamstring problems from preseason on, sustained a thumb injury in the second game of the season that made it difficult to grip the ball and sustained a bruised thigh against Boston College on Nov. 11 that kept him out of the Rutgers game a week later.
"Julius has been an intermittent player for us," Rogers said. "Even when he's played he's missed a good portion of practice during the course of a week."
Three weeks off between the Southern California game and the first practice for the Fiesta Bowl gave Jones time to heal.
"This will be the first game I'll feel 100 percent," Jones said. "I promise I'll show everybody something."
Jones' promise is what has kept the Irish fans on the edge of their seats all season. He frequently has seemed a half step away from a big play, but hasn't done it consistently.
"It's been a couple of times I've had chances to break one and I didn't have that extra burst. Now that I'm 100 percent, I have that extra burst," Jones said.
Jones has rushed for 100 yards only three times this season, which also is how many times he's rushed for fewer than 50 yards. His 4.1 yards per rush is down almost a full yard from last year. Still, he's shown glimpses of greatness.
Against Nebraska he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to get the Irish back in the game, and had a 56-yard run against Michigan State that set up a score. For the season, Jones rushed for 657 yards on 162 carries.
Fisher ran for 607 yards on 132 carries, a 4.6 yard average, while Howard rushed for 424 yards on 75 carries, a 5.7 average. But between them, they had only 16 carries in the Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan State games.
"For me, it was kind of hard early considering I was only getting the ball a few times a game," Fisher said. "At the beginning of the season there were some selfish thoughts. But as the season went on, we were winning the games that count."
Howard skipped a practice because of his unhappiness, but he returned. He and Fisher are roommates and close friends and say their friendship have helped them deal with any disappointments. All three agree it doesn't cause any friction among them.
"Me, Julius and Tony are friends," Howard said. "Football is only a four-hour game on Saturdays. Friendships last forever. You can't let a game break a friendship."
Fisher even joked with coach Bob Davie about it during the media day at Sun Devil Stadium on Tuesday. Carrying a microphone from a television station, Fisher conducted a brief interview with Davie.
"Quick question coach. What is your first play of the game going to be, a handoff to Tony Fisher?" he asked.
"I'll tell you one thing for sure, it won't be No. 12 (Fisher) carrying that football," Davie said.
Fisher turned to the camera and said: "The man has set his plan."