Former Marshall University running backs coach Chris Barclay was one of the first people to witness Columbus East graduate Markell Jones in his Purdue University debut two years ago.
Jones averaged six yards a carry against Marshall on his way to racking up 72 yards and a touchdown on the ground in his collegiate debut. The Columbus East grad already had a big reputation, having rushed for a state record 3,536 yards and 60 touchdowns in earning Mr. Football honors as a senior.
Jones’ potential stardom was highly anticipated, and Barclay remembers how fantastic he thought Jones was after the Marshall game. Jones went on to average 5.2 yards a carry for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season at Purdue. The freshman looked as if he was on the brink of greatness after being named to the 2016 watch list for the Doak Walker Award.
Barclay, who became the Boilermakers’ running backs coach seven months ago, said anointing Jones a little too early might have been the cause of him having what Barclay claims was a down year last fall. Jones had a team-high 616 yards on the ground, but had only two games over 50 yards after rushing for less than 50 in just three of his 12 games in 2015.
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“I told him quite honestly, ‘You had a little bit of a sophomore slump,’” Barclay said. “’You need to bounce back, and in order to bounce back you have to bring it every day. You have to come out here and approach it like you’re the last guy on the team.’… I said, ‘You have something to prove. If nothing else, you have something to prove to me, and he’s really risen to the occasion as a result.’”
Jones showed up to the Purdue summer training camp as a junior ready to work. He’s been leading by example with his work ethic on the field and is embracing his role as a leader. The team is starting to buy into him because of that, Barclay said. Jones didn’t have the best performance this spring, but his strength coaches told him they are finally starting to see the old Markell as of late.
“(That’s) how I’m feeling, too,” Jones said. “In the spring, I was disappointed about how many practices I was missing because of injuries. It feels good to be healthy right now and playing hard.”
The Boilermakers have yet to put together an official depth chart for any of its positions, and Jones said he is not paying much attention to that. Junior D.J. Knox is just coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him all of last season, and sophomore Tario Fuller emerged this offseason as a potential top running back candidate, as well.
“I don’t have any control over that, except for what I do on the field,” Jones said. “It’s been pretty fluid. Tario is No. 1 right now, and he’s proved why he’s in that position because he’s had a heck of a spring and a heck of a fall. He’s had a really good summer. He has a really good work ethic and everything. I think it’s still pretty fluid. I don’t think anybody in our room is satisfied with not being the No. 1, so we’re all going to continue to push and work as if we’re the No. 1.”
ESPN’s Dan Murphy mentioned Jones in a July article as one of the Big Ten West players that could be a surprise this season. Murphy wrote that “The Boilermaker staff could do a whole lot with Jones’ skill set if they are willing to get creative with him.” Jones has caught 66 passes for 454 yards in his two seasons, and he has been placed in a few pass-catcher packages during training camp.
“They’ve tested me in some of those areas,” Jones said. “We’ve even got some different packages with two receivers and things like that. I won’t get into it too much, but they’re going to utilize the guys who have the skills for what they want to get done. (Head coach Jeff) Brohm is super smart about that. He understands what type of looks he wants and who would best fit that look. I leave it up to him and trust the process.”
Jones’ only individual goal is to stay healthy this season and said Purdue’s backfield is planning on being the best running back group in the Big Ten, if not the nation. The Boilermakers posted a 3-9 record last season with just one Big Ten victory. Jones is looking to do all he can to help get his team to a bowl game this year.
Name: Markell Jones
High school: Columbus East
Position: Running back
Key stats: Ran for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman, ran for 616 yards as a sophomore