The responsibility of rejuvenating an offense that has bordered on anemic the past three seasons is a pretty steep expectation for a sophomore running back.
Purdue’s Markell Jones will be tasked with that obligation this fall.
The Boilermakers enter another year with an overwhelming number of question marks on the offensive side of the ball. David Blough and Elijah Sindelar are continuing to trade punches for the starting quarterback spot, the quality of depth on the offensive line is an area for concern and there isn’t a receiver that’s been branded as a playmaker.
Right now, Jones is the only guarantee for the offense.
As a freshman, he toted the ball for 875 yards and 10 TDs, good for the team lead in rushing last year. He also proved to be a serviceable pass-catcher out of the backfield, hauling in 34 passes for 239 yards.
Jones’ first big outing came in Week 3 against Virginia Tech, rushing for 90 yards and a touchdown on just six carries against the Hokies. Two weeks later, Indiana’s High School Mr. Football in 2014, hit the accelerator.
In the Big Ten opener against Michigan State, Jones rushed for 157 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a near upset in East Lansing. He set a single-game rushing record for a freshman against the conference’s third-best defense against the run.
“He had a real spectacular year,” former cornerback Frankie Williams told the Journal & Courier in December. “I didn’t want to tell him that because I didn’t want his head to get that big.”
The evisceration of the Spartans defense proved that the 5-foot-11, 211-pound back is more than capable of being the focal point of an offense. And that’s good, because head coach Darrell Hazell knows that’s key if the Boilermakers hope to change their fortunes in 2016.
“We’ll have to get on his back and ride him to close out games,” Hazell said in a press conference following Purdue’s Gold-Black game in April. “He’s going to have to be a tough guy. He’ll have to carry it 30-plus times a game for us to win. I’m confident that if he continues the growth he’s had, we’re going to be a good team because of him.”
An already heavy workload only increased after April’s spring game in West Lafayette, when backup running back D.J. Knox suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the contest.
Knox looked much more polished in the spring game and was hoping to improve on the 409-yard, two-touchdown season he had as a sophomore. His injury puts more weight on the shoulders of Jones, especially with another potential big-play threat off the roster.
Outside of Jones and Knox, the Boilermakers are thin on experience in the backfield. Keyante Green and Richie Worship could see more carries for Purdue this season but their effectiveness is unknown.
Green didn’t see the field last season and has just 199 yards on 27 carries to his name. Worship sat through a red-shirt year as a freshman last season.
So that leaves Jones, the only ball carrier with significant playing time, to manufacture most of the production this fall. Performances like the one against Michigan State have to come more regularly.
There isn’t much room for error on a team that has never ranked higher than 11th in the Big Ten in offensive yardage in the Hazell era.
High expectations aren’t only anticipated from his teammates and coaches. Thanks to his breakthrough freshman season, Jones was one of 10 running backs from the Big Ten to be named to the Doak Walker Award watch list this preseason.
Jones is going to have to engineer an award-winning caliber season to revitalize Purdue’s offense.