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Houston’s Marcus Jones wins Paul Hornung Award for nation’s most versatile player

Jones enters bowl season with a mark on all three phases of the game: 4 special teams TD, 1 offensive TD, and 5 interceptions.

NCAA Football: The American Athletic Conference Championship-Houston at Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Paul Hornung Award’s mission is to recognize the most versatile player in the FBS. No player fit that mold better than the 2021 recipient, Marcus Jones of the Houston Cougars.

While Jones’ primary position is listed as cornerback, the senior is much more than a traditional coverage specialist. He excelled in all three phases of the game, earning valuable time as a return specialist and even at wide receiver.

Jones led all FBS players in special teams touchdowns with four while ranking in the top five in the FBS in kick return average (34.0) and punt return average (14.4). In September, he ran back punt return touchdowns in consecutive weeks against Grambling and Navy. He sustained that special teams dominance in October by recording kick return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against East Carolina and SMU. The kick return touchdown against SMU marked the signature moment of the Houston Cougars’ season and played a major role in lifting the program to its first conference championship appearance since 2015.

On that night, the 7-0 Mustangs tied the contest at 37 apiece with a field goal. Although 30 seconds remained in the deadlocked ballgame at that point, Jones ensured there would be no overtime. The 2020 All-American return specialist fielded SMU’s ensuing kickoff, navigated through a slew of tacklers, and exploded past them for a 100-yard return. Jones crossed the goal line with 17 seconds left and Houston held on for a statement 44-37 win over an undefeated SMU squad.

Jones also recorded an interception in that contest, and his defensive playmaking amplified in the following weeks. Across a four-game stretch from Oct. 30 to Nov. 19, Jones snagged five interceptions including two in the Cougars’ win over Memphis. He is currently tied for second in the FBS in passes intercepted and landed a Second Team All-AAC selection as a cornerback. Jones also checked in as third on the team with 36 solo tackles and first among all Houston defenders with 13 pass breakups.

Jones’ efforts weren’t limited to defense and special teams. Earlier in the season, head coach Dana Holgorsen tested Jones in the offense and Houston benefited immensely from his presence. He lined up at wide receiver in wins over Rice and Navy, totaling four receptions and 51 yards against the Owls, as well as three receptions, 58 yards, and his first career offensive touchdown against the Midshipmen.

“This award means a lot to me,” Jones said in a statement issued by the Louisville Sports Commission, which presents the Paul Hornung Award. “I’ve been undersized and overlooked a lot in my life. I just kept my head down and focused on controlling the controllable. Any way I can help the team, I was down for it whether it was extra time spent in meetings or putting in the physical work on the practice field.”

Jones is the first Houston Cougar to win the award, which was established in 2010. He was selected over four other finalists which included Michigan RB/KR Blake Corum, Ball State WR/PR Justin Hall, Michigan State WR/PR Jayden Reed, and Notre Dame RB/PR Karen Williams.

He is the second player coached by Dana Holgorsen to be awarded the Paul Hornung Award. In 2012, West Virginia’s electrifying wide receiver and return specialist Tavon Austin was recognized with the honor. Holgorsen, no stranger to watching versatile players, had high praise for Jones in a statement released by the Louisville Sports Commission.

“This honor is well-deserved for Marcus,” Holgorsen said. “His ability to impact games in all three phases undoubtedly makes him the most versatile player in the country. We’re proud to have him in our program these last few years. His combination of intelligence and athleticism makes him elite wherever he lines up.”

Jones will participate in his final collegiate game in the Birmingham Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 28 against Auburn. He will look to add to his nine career interceptions and nine career special teams touchdowns as his storied college tenure draws to a conclusion.