Taiwan Jones had a fifth gear that left Big Sky Conference defenders in the dust.
The former Eastern Washington running back was fast, slippery and a big reason the Eagles turned the corner in 2010 when they won their first national title.
Jones, who rushed for 1,742 yards and 17 touchdowns that season despite missing three games due to injury, was the rare Football Championship Subdivision talent to forgo his senior year for the NFL.
He was clocked in the 40-yard dash by NFL scouts with times ranging from 4.25 to 4.35 seconds during his 2011 pro day.
Two weeks later, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round.
Last week the nine-year veteran and Houston Texan had his first multicarry game in five seasons against the Tennessee Titans, totaling nine rushes for 40 yards and a catch for a 9-yard gain.
It was a welcome change of pace for Jones, whose AFC South champion Texans (10-6) host the Buffalo Bills (10-6) on Saturday in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
The fleet-footed Jones has rarely touched the ball in recent years, but he’s established himself as a trusty special teams player who uses his speed to chase down kickoff and punt returners.
“I’ve learned to embrace the role of being a special teams player and I’ve been taking pride in it,” Jones said. “ It’s gotten me (nine) years in the league. I’ve definitely been taking ownership of it while waiting for the opportunities to get more carries on offense.”
Before signing a one-year, $1 million deal with the Texans last year, Jones was a team captain in Buffalo due to his special teams efforts.
His commitment was on full display early in the 2018 season when he picked up a fumbled punt return and lost his helmet with the ensuing contact. Jones kept running, suffering a large, bloody gash on his forehead when a defender’s helmet hit his exposed head.
“I definitely still feel like a running back at heart,” Jones said. “Even during the summers I work on being a running back, staying ready for my opportunities.
“The (Houston) organization is great. I really love coach (Bill) O’Brien. They really embrace me here, and any time you can win your division – which is a hard thing to do – is fun.”
Jones spent his first six years in the league with the Raiders, where he signed a $4.3 million three-year extension with the organization at the end of his rookie deal.
He totaled 44 carries for 240 yards during his time in Oakland, where he was the Raiders’ primary kick returner. He led the AFC in kick return yards in 2015 with 26.7 yards per return.
Jones, who started his career at EWU as a cornerback, was also moved to the Raiders’ defensive backfield for two seasons but rarely saw the field.
The experience on defense helped ease his eventual move to kickoff and punt teams.
“I definitely wouldn’t have been able to predict my future the way it’s all shaped out,” Jones said.
Jones fielded just three scholarship offers from four-year schools after starring at Deer Valley High School near Oakland, California, before choosing EWU.
Power 5 coaches were aware of Jones, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, but backed off due to his low grade-point average. He enrolled into EWU as a partial qualifier in 2007, but wasn’t eligible to play in games.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2009, Jones rushed for 1,213 yards and 15 touchdowns and hauled in 40 receptions for 561 yards and four touchdowns.
“I get a lot of young players who ask me how I feel about small schools,” said Jones, who encouraged ex-EWU twins Nsimba and Nzuzi Webster to play in Cheney. “And I tell them my story and how EWU was great to me and can be great for the next person.”
The All-American’s brilliant junior season started with 322 total yards in a season-opening loss to Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada team that finished the season ranked 11th.
It ended with a fractured ankle in the FCS quarterfinals against North Dakota State, where he rushed for 230 yards before suffering the injury early in the fourth quarter. The Eagles won 38-31 in overtime.
North Dakota State has lost one postseason game since, winning seven of the last eight FCS national titles. Top-ranked NDSU is playing for its eighth FCS title on Jan. 11 against James Madison.
Jones said he flew to Frisco, Texas – home of the FCS national title game – last season to watch EWU face NDSU and catch up with some of his old teammates and coaches.
“I’m still proud to this day to be an Eastern Washington Eagle,” Jones said. “I get excited when I see or hear that the guys up there are doing well.”
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