Calvin Jones is one of the all-time greats in Nebraska high school and Husker football history, as the Omaha native set Class A high school rushing records for a game (367 yards), a season (2,196 yards), and a career (3,965 yards).
As a senior in 1989, Jones was one of the highest-recruited players ever in the state and one of the top 100 prospects in the nation. He averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, scored 22 touchdowns and was the Gatorade Circle of Champions Nebraska running back of the year.
But colleges knew about Jones before his record-breaking senior season; he started getting letters from colleges during his junior year in high school.
“Recruiters always had their eye on Omaha Central because of the athletes that would always come through there,” Jones said. “We had two other running backs ahead of me that year who were seniors and went on to play Division I football. Kelly Yancy went to Oklahoma State and Sherman Williams went to Iowa State.”
Tennessee was one of the schools that recruited Jones the hardest. They had a running back tandem in 1989 called the “Cobb-Webb” with Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb. They were seniors that year, and Jones was promised the opportunity to come in and play right away his freshman year.
“I really had an interest in Tennessee,” Jones said. “They were the first school that showed a lot of interest in me. But I never went on a recruiting visit there, just UNLV and Nebraska.”
Out of all the big-name national schools after Jones, UNLV wasn’t the kind of team you would expect to be on the list for a high school All-American running back.
“One of my high school coaches went to UNLV, and they also had a new head coach coming in from Notre Dame who was the offensive coordinator there and recruited me. They said I could come there and start immediately and would be like Ickey Woods,” Jones said.
Woods played running back at UNLV and went on to star in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals. During his senior season, Woods became the first Rebel to win a Division I rushing title, carrying the ball for 1,658 yards and 10 touchdowns. Woods then was drafted by the Bengals in the second round of the 1988 NFL draft.
“When I went on the visit to UNLV, their basketball team had just won the championship. When I got there they had Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon as the hosts on my recruiting visit. After that, I was going to Vegas!” Jones laughed.
But Nebraska was always the front-runner. Not only was it his home-state school, but Jones’s high school had a tradition of sending its star running backs to the Huskers. Keith Jones and Leodis Flowers were two Omaha Central standouts that were highly recruited players who starred at NU.
“The guy I idolized when I was in high school was Leodis Flowers,” Jones said. “I kept in contact with him when he was at Nebraska. I wanted to be like him.”
Family also was a key factor for Jones staying home. He was raised by his grandmother and he also had a daughter, so it would have been very difficult to relocate and play out-of-state.
Jones committed to Nebraska a couple of weeks before signing day, continuing the Omaha Central pipeline.
A redshirt season wasn’t something Jones envisioned heading to Lincoln, and normally a redshirt wouldn’t happen for a highly rated recruit who could help your team immediately, but Nebraska had a unique situation.
Derek Brown was a top-100 national recruit who had come in the year before, but due to Prop 48 he had to sit out a year. So the coaches at Nebraska didn’t feel it would be beneficial for Brown, a running back, to sit out for two years. So Jones was asked to take a redshirt.
“I didn’t want to redshirt, and told Coach Solich (running back coach) that I wanted to transfer. So we had a meeting with Coach Osborne and I told him that I wanted to go to UNLV,” Jones said.
“Coach Osborne asked me if I knew the process…I said no. He told me that he wouldn’t release me from the scholarship, which meant I would have sit out one year and then pay two years of college. He said that he knew my family and that he didn’t think they could afford to pay for two years of college.”
Osborne went on to say that if Jones was tired of playing football, he would keep him on scholarship and if he wanted to find a job, he would help Jones find one. But Jones looked at Osborne and said, “Well, coach, I guess I will see you at practice,” and that was that.
“Redshirting was the best thing I could have possibly done,” Jones said. “I learned so much as a running back. I went against our defense every week, and those were tough practices. We had six guys on defense that year that were drafted in the NFL, two of which were top-five overall.”
The 1991 season saw the 5-10, 210-pound Jones set a Husker freshman record of 900 yards rushing, despite being the second-team running back behind Brown. Jones, who ran a low 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, also broke the Nebraska single-game rushing record, gaining a record 294 yards on 27 carries against Kansas (and also scoring an NU and Big 8 record six touchdowns).
“The longer the record stood, the more I appreciated it after college, because it was team first and you had to focus on finishing the season and getting ready for the next year, so I never had time to appreciate it when I was at Nebraska,” Jones said.
But the individual run that stands out most for Jones that season came in the Oklahoma game, when he ran for 78 yards on only nine carries in the game-winning drive, helping Nebraska win 19-14. To cap off that drive, Jones ran up the middle untouched for 15 yards for the winning score. “The lineman blocked a hole you could have driven a garbage truck through,” Jones said after the game.
For his efforts, Jones was voted the Big Eight Offensive Newcomer of the Year, and earned second-team all-conference honors from the AP.
For most teams, a player like Jones would become a serious Heisman Trophy candidate. But at Nebraska, Jones had to share the backfield with Brown.
In 1992, Jones and Brown became known as the “We-backs” after rushing for 2,221 yards and 18 touchdowns. Jones contributed 1,210 yards and 14 touchdowns. Both were All-Big 8 picks and split the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
If either player had received the other’s share of carries, he could have won the Heisman Trophy…and that’s one of the reasons why there was tension between the two players.
“We communicated on the field, but off the field we did our own thing,” Jones said. “We both wanted to be the man, and were very competitive. At the time we didn’t like the “We-Back” moniker, we wanted an “M” instead of the “W” in the word “We”. But now I like it because of what we accomplished together.”
As a junior in 1993, Jones was a preseason All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate, but a knee injury in the first game of the season caused him to miss the next two games, thus ending any national honor opportunities.
But Jones did rush for more than 1,000 yards that year, earning first-team all-conference honors for the second year in a row, even though a newcomer by the name of Lawrence Phillips came in and took carries away and looked to be the next star at I-back for Nebraska.
Despite only starting 12 games in his three-year career, Jones decided it was time to move on and enter the NFL draft. It was a move that he now looks back on with some regret.
“I should have stayed at Nebraska for my senior season instead of entering after my junior year,” Jones said. “The reasons I decided to leave was I was getting older already, 23, and I listened to the wrong people.”
Jones was selected by the Los Angeles Raiders in the third round of the 1994 draft. He played just three seasons, going to Green Bay for his final year, which enabled him to be a member of a Super Bowl championship team. In his professional career, Jones only rushed for 112 yards on 27 carries.
“I had the talent to excel in the NFL as a running back, but it was the mental part that got me… it was a bad situation with the Raiders. I wasn't one of Al Davis’s (Raiders owner) guys, and they brought in Harvey Williams from Kansas City after trading Marcus Allen. It was just a bad place and a bad time for me,” Jones said.
It makes one wonder “what if?” about his professional career, but one cannot argue what Jones did as a player in high school and college, which made him one of the best in Nebraska sports history.
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