At this time a year ago, Markell Jones was a true freshman waiting for his chance to get on the football field.

As he enters his sophomore season, Jones is likely be the focal point of the Purdue offense. Coach Darrell Hazell said he wouldn’t be surprised if Jones touches the ball 30 times a game.

“I think you have to,” Hazell said Wednesday inside Purdue’s Mollenkopf Athletic Center after practice was cut short because of a tornado warning. “He’s that good.”

The Columbus East graduate has prepared himself for the grind of a Big Ten season. The Boilermakers open with a nonconference game Saturday at home against Eastern Kentucky.

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Jones thinks his conditioning level is much higher than it was at this point last season.

“My endurance levels are off the charts, and I feel like that’s definitely going to be needed if I’m getting as many carries as coach Hazell has talked about, and (running backs) coach (DeAndre) Smith has talked about,” Jones said. “I need to be able to be 100 percent throughout all 20 or 30 carries.”

To do that, Jones went to work building muscle and shedding fat. He credits gains he made physically to strength coach Duane Carlisle and nutritionist Lauren Link.

After playing at 205 pounds last season, the 5-foot-11 Jones got up to 212, but is now back down to 205.

“We’ve challenged him in the offseason to be great, to be a leader, to be able to handle a lot more than he did as a freshman,” Smith said. “I saw the benefits when they got back on the quickness, the lateral movement, change of direction. It’s so much better than what it was in the spring. He has stepped up to the challenge and has done a great job so far.”

A solid beginning

Jones burst onto the college football scene last year with a big freshman season. He made six starts and ran for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns in earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors for a 2-10 squad.

In his first start, Jones ran for 157 yards and two scores in a 24-21 loss at second-ranked Michigan State, a team that would go on to play in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season.

“I was really excited about my freshman year,” Jones said. “I think it taught me a ton, especially in terms of the speed and the quickness of those guys and the size of those guys. I think that little introductory period for me got my feet wet. It’s going to be fun for me to come out this upcoming season and just show myself and everyone else my improvements over the past year.”

One of those improvements has been catching the ball out of the backfield. When he won Indiana Mr. Football honors as a senior at East, he carried 312 times for a state-record 3,536 yards and 60 touchdowns but caught only five passes for 42 yards.

Last year at Purdue, Jones caught 34 passes for 239 yards and a score.

“I just want to continue to do that, work with the hands,” Jones said. “We have the Jugs machine that we work at. I’ve always thought I’ve had pretty good natural hands, but it never hurts to practice. I do look forward to catching more and more passes out of the backfield this year.”

The Boilermakers have a new offensive coordinator in Terry Malone. The former New Orleans Saints tight ends coach, who was with the team for its 2009 Super Bowl championship, came to Purdue as its tight ends coach last year.

In December, Malone was promoted to offensive coordinator.

“He likes to air it out, but he also knows that he has some running backs that can carry the load, so he’s going to take care of us,” Jones said. “But those receivers making plays downfield, that’s going to help free up the running gaps. Our offensive line coach (Darrell) Funk has gotten those guys real nice and sturdy on their pass protection. So this is truly a unit that is dependent upon everybody to do their jobs in order to make it easy for everybody else, and we’ve done a good job of that coming out of fall camp.”

Praise from the top

Jones has been drawing high ratings from the media as he enters his sophomore season. Lindy’s Sports College Football Preview selected him as a preseason second-team All-Big 10 running back and the No. 20 overall back in the country.

On Friday, the Big Ten Network put together a prototypical running back using characteristics from five different backs. Jones was cited for versatility.

“I didn’t even realize how good he was until you watch him practice and all the subtleties he has of sliding in the hole, seeing the second defender come while he’s still negotiating the first defender,” Hazell said. “Just those things I think makes him really special. He’s tough, he’s a competitor and he’s smart. He has the whole package.”

Hazell said Jones looks a lot lighter on his feet, is better downfield against defenders and has really made an effort to get better at the pass protection and understand it better.

Those characteristics, Hazell said, have made Jones a leader, not only among the running backs, but the entire team.

“They all follow him,” Hazell said. “There’s something about him. He’s very mature and very steady and a worker. He works his tail off, just like the rest of the guys.”

Best in the West?

Off the field, Jones is a professional flight technology major. He has has private pilot’s license and is working toward commercial license. He flies from 9:30 to 11:20 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Boilermakers will make some flights this season, but they hope to take the short drive to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 3.

“Our goal is not a bowl game,” Jones said. “Our goal is not to have a winning record. Our goal is to win the West (Division), and that’s what we plan on doing. We’re going to win the West, and we’re going to do that with our leaders. Those guys are going to lead their individual positions and this entire team to help us win the West.”

Those leaders Jones to which Jones was referring include linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, defensive tackle Jake Replogle, guard Jordan Roos and wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey. They’ll lead Purdue against a favorable Big Ten schedule that sees them avoid the league’s top three teams — East Division powers Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.

Jones is hoping to rush for at least 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns

“He’s going to have a great year,” Hazell said. “The big thing we try to do as a staff is to keep him healthy through this camp. We took a lot of the hits off of him, and sometimes he doesn’t like that when we pull him out, but we’re doing it for his own good. He’s going to take a lot of shots this year, and he has to make sure his body can show some longevity.”

Of course, Jones’ workload will largely depend on where Purdue sits on the scoreboard. If the Boilermakers fall behind, they may have to air it out. If they get a lead in the second half, they could be content letting Jones grind out the yards and the clock.

If the latter is the case, Smith is confident Jones can handle the workload.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” Smith said. “That’s one thing I love about this offense. If it’s giving it to the running back 30 times, or if we’re going to throw the ball 30 times, I think we’ll do whatever needs to be done. He’s more capable of doing that, so if it comes down to that, I know we’re all comfortable that he can get that done.”

Markell Jones

Name: Markell Jones

Age: 19

High school: Columbus East

College: Purdue

Major: Professional flight technology

Year: Sophomore

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 205

Position: Running back

Honors: Indiana Mr. Football, Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year and Parade All-American as a senior at East in 2014.

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.