USC RB Austin Jones ready to ‘step up’ for injured Travis Dye

LOS ANGELES — After Austin Jones catapulted into the end zone, bouncing off a defender as he traveled through the air, the USC running back held up two fingers, then switched to six before pointing to the sky.

As the Trojans put together the finishing touches on a 55-17 win over Colorado, it was impossible for Jones to shake the thought of fellow running back Travis Dye. The senior transfer who had ingratiated himself to the entire USC locker room, Dye left the field on a cart in the second quarter Friday, his left leg in an air cast after crumpling beneath him on a carry.

Before the cart could drive off, though, the entire USC sideline crowded around the fallen senior leader. Closest to him were quarterback Caleb Williams and the entire USC running back room.

“I know this is his last year. I had to throw up the 2-6 for him,” Jones said. “He was always encouraging me, I was always encouraging him. We stuck with it together. To see him go out like that, it hurts me.”

Prior to what is expected to be a season-ending injury, Dye had become an irreplaceable part of the USC locker room since transferring from Oregon in January.

Beyond being the leading rusher and a reliable pass blocker, Dye was the Trojans’ voice of reason. The former Norco High star challenged them to work harder in practice, and to strive to improve even in the midst of an undefeated start.

When head coach Lincoln Riley said USC would not be sitting there, 9-1 and ranked eighth nationally, without Dye, Williams and defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu nodded their heads firmly at the statement.

Beyond that, Dye and Jones had developed a close relationship, both transferring to USC together from Pac-12 rivals.

“We’re always laughing with each other, we’re always joking with each other every day,” said Jones, a Stanford transfer. “Even before the games, we always go to each other’s hotel rooms, just sit down and hash it out and stuff.”

Dye will still be around the team, as evidenced by his jovial behavior on the sideline while on crutches Friday. But while he can continue to be a leader and voice in the locker room, USC will need to replace his on-field production.

Jones got the lion’s share of work following Dye’s injury, rushing 11 times for 74 yards while leading USC with four receptions. Freshman Raleek Brown got plenty of opportunities – seven rushes for 52 yards – while Darwin Barlow came in late and rushed for a touchdown.

“I know what they’re capable of so it doesn’t surprise me,” Jones said.

But if anyone is ready to fill the workhorse role that Dye occupied this late in the season, it’s Jones.

His last two seasons at Stanford, Jones had more than 100 carries each year. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he averaged 21 carries per game.

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At the start of this campaign, USC initially split running back duties between Dye and Jones, waiting to see who ran away with the job. In the Fresno State win in Week 3, Dye and Jones each topped 100 rushing yards. But Jones’ opportunities dipped, topping out at five carries across the next five games.

Now USC will need him, Brown and Barlow to elevate their games in Dye’s absence.

“We gotta step up for him. We gotta take on what he’s been doing so well with and just continue to progress,” Jones said. “We just got to continue to work.”

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