Columbus connections power major programs

Nothing like a little added excitement to my favorite season.

College football is ready to roll, and here in Columbus we have a connection to athletes who could make national headlines.

I’ll start with the new face (for college football) in Purdue, tailback Markell Jones.

Jones set an Indiana high school single-season rushing record for Columbus East in 2014, but he will be an unknown commodity as the Boilermakers begin another attempt at rebuilding.

Those of us who have watched Jones perform in high school expect great things, even though he has moved to another level. At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, he is plenty big enough to handle the physical grind associated with major college football.

As the type of running back who is likely to pound inside, he has enough quickness to get the job done as well.

What he might lack is blocking.

Although Purdue is returning eight starters from last season’s 3-9 squad, including quarterback Austin Appleby, these players have tasted very little success. Their wins last season were against Western Michigan, Southern Illinois and Illinois.

Purdue did show a statistical balance on offense in 2014, and that included 157.2 yards rushing per game. It used to be that 150 yards rushing per game was the hallmark of success.

However, we all know that it’s much easier to rush the football when you are way behind. Can Purdue, as a team, effectively run the football when it matters? That’s a big question.

Jones is likely to go into Sunday’s opener at Marshall as Purdue’s No. 2 tailback behind sophomore D.J. Knox, who is getting his first shot at being a starting tailback in the Big Ten. Although Jones graduated from high school early so he could set himself up to play his true freshman season, he still is awfully new to the program. That, in itself, probably has kept him from being tagged as the No. 1 tailback already.

My expectations are that Knox will struggle against a Marshall team that lost just one game in 2014, albeit against inferior competition. I don’t think it will take long for Jones to be getting the lion’s share of carries.

That being said, I hope he isn’t getting creamed just as he touches the ball. No running back looks good when he dodges tacklers in the backfield.

My prediction is that Jones rises to Purdue’s No. 1 tailback this season and has some good individual gains. Overall, though, it could be a tough year for Jones if head coach Darrell Hazell hasn’t elevated his team’s level of play.

I’ll shift gears now to Columbus’ marquee player on a national level, Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel, who led the Bearcats to a 9-4 record in 2014.

Perhaps lost in Kiel’s season that included 3,254 yards passing and 31 touchdown passes was the fact he started all 13 games despite some pretty substantial injuries.

Considering this is one very big, strong man, I am betting that Kiel has a healthy 2015 season that could well set him up to be a high NFL Draft pick after his junior season.

When it comes to statistics, Kiel might not have quite as lofty numbers as Cincinnati is expected to gear back a bit to reduce turnovers and have a more balanced offense. Overall, though, Cincinnati has a chance to be in the talk about national championship tournament berth.

That’s a long shot, but certainly it is possible.

It’s going to be fun watching.

Jay Heater is the Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.