2021 WINNER – MARCUS JONES (Houston)
It did not matter where Marcus Jones lined up on the field – the argument could be made that he was the best player at the position. Houston Football’s swiss-army knife was electric in the return game, a ball-hawk defensively and an impact player on offense.
Jones, a senior from Enterprise, Ala., played a significant role in Houston’s 12-win season, at times carrying the no. 20 Cougars to victory, never more evident than his go-ahead 100-yard kickoff return touchdown with 17 seconds remaining against no. 16 SMU on Oct. 30.
En route to being named the 2021 Paul Hornung Award winner, Jones shined in all three phases of the game. In December 2021, he was recognized as a consensus All-American, becoming only the ninth Houston player in program history to accomplish the feat.
“This award means a lot to me,” Jones said of the 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 finished the 2021 season with 48 tackles, five interceptions, 13 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one tackle for a loss. He ranked fourth nationally in interceptions (5) and third in passes defended per game (1.4).
The senior was the only player in the country with multiple punt return touchdowns and multiple kick return touchdowns. He finished fourth in the nation in average yards per punt return at 14.4 and averaged a staggering 34 yards per kickoff return.
“This honor is well-deserved for Marcus,” Houston Head Coach Dana 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 had him in our program these last few years. His combination of intelligence and athleticism makes him elite wherever he lines up.”
On offense, Jones lined up at wide receiver in wins over Navy and cross-town rival Rice, catching 10 passes for 109 yards and a score while carrying the ball twice.
Jones had a career night in the Cougars’ 44-37 win over no. 16 SMU. In addition to his 100-yard kick return in the closing seconds, he also contributed six tackles, including one tackle-for-loss and an interception.
Against Navy, he returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown and caught a 47-yard touchdown pass. In a 31-24 home win over East Carolina, Jones returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest play at the time in TDECU Stadium history. In the AAC championship game against Cincinnati, Jones returned one punt for 14 yards and four kickoffs for 92 yards while forcing a fumble and breaking up one pass.
Jones helped Houston reach new heights in 2021. As a team, the Cougars posted their second undefeated conference season in their 75-year history, going 8-0 in AAC play, earning a berth in the league’s title game against no. 4 Cincinnati.
With Jones at corner, the Cougars put together one of their most dominant seasons defensively of all time. Houston led the nation in third down conversion percentage defense (.257), ranked seventh in first downs defense (210), seventh in total defense (301.1), 15th in red zone defense (.735) and 18th in passing yards allowed (194.0), among other top-25 statistical rankings.
The former standout at Enterprise High School broke onto the scene after transferring from Troy, Mich. In 2020, Jones earned first-team All-America honors from the FWAA, Phil Steele Magazine and CBS/247Sports as a punt returner. Jones was also named to The American’s All-Conference First Team as a return specialist.
In 2020, Jones led the FBS and The American in punt return average (19.8) on 17 returns for 337 yards and one touchdown. He also paced the FBS in punt return yards (337), ranking fourth in Houston single-season history in punt return yards and punt return average.
In seven starts at cornerback, Jones finished with 24 tackles (18 solo), 2.0 tackles for loss, one interception and five pass breakups.
Jones turned heads during his two-year stint at Troy, becoming the program’s second All-American since moving to the FBS level when named to Phil Steele’s All-America Third Team as a kick returner. He was also named to the ESPN and FWAA Freshman All-America Teams in addition to being the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year.
He set the Troy single-season record and tied the Troy career record with three kickoff returns touchdowns and tied the NCAA record with two kick return touchdowns in a game against Coastal Carolina. Jones also added a 99-yard return for a touchdown in Troy’s Sun Belt title-clinching win at Arkansas State.
The former three-star recruit was named to the Alabama Sports Writers Association 7A All-State First Team as a senior while helping lead Enterprise High School to an 11-2 record and a berth in the second round of the Alabama 7A Playoffs.
For a Houston program that has seen its share of success, Jones is just the Cougars’ fourth national award winner, joining Andre Ware (1989 Heisman Trophy), Wilson Whitley (1976 Lombardi Award) and Ed Oliver (2017 Outland Trophy).
His palpable passion for the game, at full display on the field, coupled with his easy-going nature off the field, made Jones a fan favorite. He put a dent in Houston’s record book and helped the Cougars turn the corner in year three under Holgorsen.
Jones may have been overlooked arriving at Houston.
He’ll leave as Mr. Versatile.
Click here to view all photos from the 2022 Paul Hornung Award Ceremony
Chosen as finalists were Blake Corum, Michigan; Justin Hall, Ball State; Jayden Reed, Michigan State; and Kyren Williams, Notre Dame
Sophomore running back / return specialist
Michigan Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall)
Michigan speedster Blake Corum is third in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in all-purpose yards per game (135.4) touching the ball running, receiving and returning kickoffs. He started the season with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, scored three touchdowns in back-to-back UM wins over Washington and Northern Illinois, scored twice rushing against Northwestern and scored twice against Western Michigan (one rushing, one receiving.) He had a season best with 171 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and 231 all-purpose yards versus Washington, scoring on runs of 67, seven and four yards. Corum now has four, 100-yard rushing games; scores a touchdown every 13.5 touches; and averages 25.3 yards per kickoff return, tops in the Big Ten. He was slowed by injury in week 10.
All-Purpose: 1,216 yards (135.4 average per game)
Rushing: 129 rushes, 778 yards, 10 touchdowns (84.6 average per game)
Receiving: 20 receptions, 137 yards, one touchdown (15.2 average per game)
Kick Return: 12 kick returns, 304 yards (33.8 average per game)
Senior wide receiver / return specialist
Ball State Cardinals (3-3 MAC, 5-5 overall)
A prolific all-purpose receiver and punt/kick returner, Justin Hall is 15th in the nation and second in the MAC in all-purpose yards (136.1 per game) and has scored six touchdowns rushing, five receiving and one on a kickoff return. He touched the ball rushing, receiving and returning punts and kicks in the first seven games, since then opponents consistently have squibbed or pooched kickoffs away from him and punted out-of-bounds. He averages an astounding 34.5 yards per kick return and a healthy 12 yards per punt return. Hall touched the ball 20 times for 162 all-purpose yards and two scores in BSU’s win over Eastern Michigan and touched the ball 12 times four different ways against Army, including a 99-yard score with the opening kickoff in a 28-16 BSU win.
All-Purpose: 1,361 yards (136.1 average per game)
Receiving: 59 receptions, 606 yards, five touchdowns (60.6 average per game)
Rushing: 37 rushes, 255 yards, six touchdowns (25.5 average per game)
Kick Return: 11 kick returns, 380 yards, one touchdown (34.5 average per return)
Punt Return: 10 punt returns, 120 yards (12 average per return)
Junior wide receiver / return specialist
Michigan State Spartans (6-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall)
Jayden Reed touched the ball receiving, rushing and returning punts and kicks and currently is 13th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards per game (130.9). He averages an incredible 21 yards per punt and 25.3 yards per kickoff return. Reed touched the ball four ways and scored on touchdown receptions and punt returns in MSU’s wins over WKU and Nebraska, including a 62-yard punt return for a score to tie the game late in the fourth quarter; and he touched the ball three different ways and scored twice in wins over Maryland and Youngstown State. He made a miraculous, 28-yard catch on a fourth down situation when MSU trailed Michigan by 16 late in the game, keeping alive a touchdown drive in the Spartan’s comeback win.
All-Purpose: 1,178 yards (130.9 average per game)
Receiving: 37 receptions, 715 yards, five touchdowns (79.4 average per game)
Rushing: six rushes, 42 yards, one touchdown (seven average per attempt)
Kick Return: eight kick returns, 208 yards (26 average per attempt)
Punt Return: 10 punt returns, 213 yards, two touchdowns (23.7 average per game)
Sophomore running back / return specialist
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Independent, 9-1 overall)
Kyren Williams is a workhorse running back who also lines up at slot receiver, he leads Notre Dame in rushing, scoring and punt returns; is second in total receptions; and sees spot play on kickoff returns. A rare underclassman captain at Notre Dame, Williams is 14th in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (138), and emerged as a force since mid-season with 829 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in Notre Dame’s past five games. He touched the ball 24 times and scored twice against Virginia Tech, touched the ball 32 times three different ways and scored twice in a win over USC, touched the ball 25 times three different ways and scored the winning touchdown on a 93-yard run against North Carolina, and touched the ball 28 times four different ways and scored twice in a win over Navy.
All-Purpose: 1,327 yards (132.7 average per game)
Rushing: 174 rushes, 872 yards, 10 touchdowns (87.2 average per game)
Receiving: 36 receptions, 308 yards three touchdowns (30.8 average per game)
Punt Return: 11 rushes, 118 yards (10.7 average per attempt)
Kick Return: one kick return, 29 yards (29 average per attempt)