HE DOESN’T PASS, BUT HE COULD BE THE STAR

But enough about the quarterback. Let’s talk about the running back. We spend so much time in Detroit on who’s taking snaps, we forget that our biggest stars have been the men who take handoffs: Billy Sims, Barry Sanders.

And now … Kevin Jones?

“Yeah, I thought about that my rookie year,” says Jones, 24. “There’s a tradition here I want to be a part of. But last year wasn’t a big indication of it.”

“Last year” to Jones is like “last year” to Martha Stewart: better off forgotten. After bursts of greatness his rookie season with the Lions (“A steal!” some were saying. “A franchise back!” said others), Jones fell to injury, difficulty and, at times, invisibility in his second season. His numbers went down. Fewer carries. Fewer catches. Heck, he came out on third down. What franchise back comes out on third down?

“It was chaos last year,” Jones says. “I had 25 carries in the first game and we won – and I almost never saw anything close after that.

“They took me out on third downs because at first I had difficulty with the passing part of the offense. So I figured I would concentrate on what they brought me here for, to carry the ball. …

“And then I guess they gave up on me for the passing plays. They said, ‘He can’t do it.’ Which is idiotic to me.”

You’re not alone, Kevin.

A family tradition of hard work

Jones does not want to badmouth the previous Lions administration. Suffice to say he is much more excited about the current regime of Rod Marinelli and Mike Martz. He likes their long hours, their hard work and their discipline.

Yes, their discipline. Discipline reminds Jones of his father. If discipline had a smell, it would be his father’s aftershave. Jones grew up in Chester, Pa., the son of a construction worker who doubled as an assistant high school coach for football and track. And guess who was on his teams?

“Other guys went home after practice and just relaxed.” Jones says with a laugh. “I went home and watched film with my dad.”

Most nights he would follow Dad’s orders to do 500 sit-ups and 500 push-ups right there in the living room as the rest of the family moved around him. “I was always training,” he says.

So hard work is no big deal. In fact, Jones yearns for it. “A lot of coaches are afraid to coach high draft picks,” he says. “They don’t want to mess them up, or they figure they already know it.

“But before I got to the NFL, a lot of what I did was on talent or pure instinct. I didn’t know that many X’s and O’s. These new coaches show them to me.”

That’s a pretty frank admission from a third-year player. But Jones wants to be more frank this year, more vocal, more everything. At times, he says, he regrets not speaking up more last season. He feels as if part of the year was yanked from underneath him, like a tablecloth.

This year he wants to rip that tablecloth up.

Never leaving the football field

“They say they want me to be an all-around back this year, to be a complete back, catch the ball, block as well as run,” Jones says.

He’s good with that. He knows a back named Marshall Faulk had a pretty good stretch doing those same things under Martz in St. Louis.

And for all the spotlight on NFL quarterbacks, remember the two Super Bowl teams last year were highlighted by running backs: Shaun Alexander, Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis.

So today begins a new campaign for Jones, as it does for all Lions fans. There were many times last year where, in the middle of arguing Joey Harrington or Jeff Garcia, you found yourself asking, “Whatever happened to Kevin Jones?”

He plans it to answer that this season. He plans on being seen. He plans on staying in there, down after down.

“I see this as a breakout year,” he says. And let’s face it: Lions running backs have had a lot more luck with that kind of thing than quarterbacks.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show”cq 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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