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Versatile Houston star Marcus Jones is the man of the most talents

A wide receiver, a cornerback, a punt returner, and a musician — Jones strives for success in every passion he pursues.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Houston Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

When reading the Heisman Trophy voting results for the 2010 season, one name particularly sticks out on a list crammed with quarterbacks and running backs — Owen Marecic of Stanford. As the Cardinal’s starting fullback, he produced 46 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his senior season. So, what warranted the Heisman finish? Marecic had the designation as the only player in the FBS to start games on both offense and defense that season, and as a linebacker, he tallied 51 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, and one defensive touchdown.

We’ve seen several players over the years — including Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge — receive ample playing time on both offense and defense in a single season. It’s a massively difficult task, and that’s why starting on both sides of the field can warrant Heisman Trophy votes, as witnessed 11 years ago. But one senior in the Lone Star State is up for the challenge, and his talents extend to all three facets of the game. Marcus Jones of the Houston Cougars is establishing a name for himself on offense, defense, and special teams.

“I’ve coached for 25 plus years and never had anybody be able to do it. There’s just not many people that can do that,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said at AAC media day in August, when asked about Jones’ potential to play in both sides of the ball. “Marcus is a special player... He’s obviously pretty good with the ball in his hands. He’s one of the best cover guys in the country as well. He can play defense, he can cover, he can catch it, he can return it.”

Jones started seven games at cornerback for Houston in 2020. The pandemic-abbreviated season was his first collegiate action in two years, as the electrifying talent sat out the 2019 campaign due to NCAA transfer rules. Jones traveled over from Troy after thriving as a cornerback and special teams artist in 2017 and 2018. He was recognized with Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in 2017 for his efforts in coverage and in the return game. Realizing the talent they were working with, the Trojans elected to insert him on offense the following year — where he garnered five receptions and two rushes to attain 37 yards from scrimmage.

“Him tracking the ball downfield is as impressive as I’ve ever seen,” Holgorsen said of Jones’ receiving abilities. “It’s why he’s such a good punt returner.”

This offseason, it was hinted that Jones could expand his role offensively in addition to handling duties at cornerback. We received a brief preview of Jones on both units in the kickoff game against Texas Tech where he registered on six tackles on defense and fielded two handoffs with the offense. Against Rice, in a surprising twist of events, Jones was absent from the lineup when the first-team defense took the field. Instead, he lined up with the first-team offense to snag four receptions en route to a career-best 51 receiving yards.

“We felt like we could handle Rice defensively without him. We’re looking for a little bit of a spark on offense,” Holgorsen said about changing Jones’ role in Week 2. “It’s gonna be a week-to-week thing. I wish we had two of him where he could cover people all the time and then we could use him at slot all the time. There’s only one of him and we’re gonna be careful with him, and we did target him four or five times, and he helped us.”

Houston’s increased depth at cornerback allows Holgorsen to be flexible with his star player. Junior corner Art Green stepped into Jones’ starting role at Rice and secured his first career interception in the second quarter. Overall, the secondary silenced the Owls to the tune of 86 yards passing, a 47.4 completion percentage, and three interceptions.

“We actually have depth at corner and that’s great because we can do different packages with different safeties and different corners in the game,” Jones said. “Corner is one of those positions to where you have to have a good mindset and you have to be right mentally.”

Jones stated he is open to operating in any role that Coach Holgorsen sees fit on a week-to-week basis. But suiting up with the offense for an entire game was an exhilarating feeling for the senior who has lined up regularly at cornerback since he first stepped foot on Troy’s campus in 2017.

“I don’t remember the last time I haven’t played defense,” Jones said. “I felt excited being on the other side of the ball. I’ve played receiver all my life basically too. So anyway I can help the team, I’m down for it.”

Whether he lines up as a receiver or cornerback, there remains one constant in Jones’ game: special teams. As a return specialist, the versatile athlete is truly among the nation’s elite. Jones was the only player in the FBS to explode for 100 punt return yards in two separate contests in 2020. He surpassed the century mark in the season opener against Tulane and replicated it against South Florida, when he raced a 72-yard return to the end zone for his first touchdown in a Cougar uniform. Jones led the country in punt return yardage in 2020 and his special teams dominance led to a prestigious accolade — All-American status.

“I’ve coached some pretty good punt returners,” Holgorsen said. “Wes Welker (at Texas Tech) had the all-time touchdown record at one point, but the way Marcus tracks it and immediately gets it up field earned him First Team All-American status as a punt returner.”

Coaches and players across the country are beginning to acknowledge Jones’ unique talents on the field and teams strategically aim punts away from his vicinity as a result. His presence on all three units makes him a focal point in film study for teams preparing to face the Cougars.

“In the secondary, No. 8 is an incredible player and he’s an incredible athlete — whether they’re having him return kicks, whether they’re having him play some offense, or whether they’re having him at corner — he’s just a playmaker,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “And from what I understand, he’s a pretty good rapper too, so maybe I have to check that out.”

That final scouting report is not a typo. Jones’ talent resides beyond the hash marks and pylons. On Sept. 10, Jones officially launched his music career to the world by dropping his debut album titled “Complications.” The Cougar star displayed his array of talents in the music industry by providing the vocals on every track while operating as the album producer. “Complications” received an extended shoutout on the CBS Sports Network broadcast of Saturday’s Houston-Rice game, and the network even displayed the album cover art on screen.

Jones’ off-the-field music career is a product of the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) legislation passed on July 1, which allows all college athletes to profit off their own image beyond the field. It’s a game-changer for players like Jones who intend to pursue other passions during their college athletic careers.

“It’s a great opportunity for players to be able to market themselves and learn the business side while in college,” Jones said at AAC media day in August. “Most people brand right whenever they get out of college, but if you learn those ins and outs while you’re in college, but know how to manage those things such as playing ball — which is ball first, and also marketing yourself after — I feel like it will help with longevity at the end.”

Jones’ debut album is available for download on Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes, which is a first in the college sports landscape. That allows Jones to be a pioneer on two fronts. He’s a trailblazer of the NIL era as one of the first of many notable athletes to release an album while in college. He’s also a trailblazer on the field as one of the few college football players to star in all three phases of the game. Jones’ gamut of abilities is remarkable, and that’s why the Houston standout might be the most interesting player the sport has to offer for the 2021 season.