PITTSBURGH – Felix Jones knows a little something about playing in crowded backfields.
In college at Arkansas, he shared carries with Darren McFadden and fullback Peyton Hillis, all three of whom have gone on to have success in the NFL.
In Dallas, which selected Jones with the 22nd pick in the 2008 draft, one pick ahead of where the Steelers took Rashard Mendenhall, he shared time with Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray, among others, never really being given much of an opportunity to be a lead back.
It’s a career course that has led him to the Steelers, who made a trade with Philadelphia to acquire him two weeks ago. Jones had signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia as a free agent, but again found himself being squeezed for carries behind starter LeSean McCoy.
For Jones, now 26, sharing the football has always been something he’s had to do, going all the way back to his days at Booker T. Washington High School, a perennial powerhouse in Tulsa, Okla., where he had to share the ball with Robert Meachem, who later starred at Tennessee and now plays for the New Orleans Saints.
“Back in high school even, we had a bunch of great players,” Jones said. “It was kind of hard to feed everybody the football.”
Because of always having to fight for carries, Jones is accustomed to the situation he now finds himself in with the Steelers, who open their regular season Sunday at Heinz Field against the Tennessee Titans.
Pittsburgh selected Le’Veon Bell in the second round of this year’s draft with the thought he could turn into a feature back. But Bell has been sidelined by a foot injury since Week 2 of the preseason, leaving veterans Issac Redman, who will be the starter, and LaRod Stephens-Howling to carry the load along with Jones.
Despite his late arrival to Pittsburgh, Jones impressed the coaching staff with his knowledge of the game and ability enough in two preseason games, where he gained 85 yards on 22 carries, that the Steelers released returning leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer last week.
“We didn’t even have the guy on the practice field once,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley of Jones’ first preseason game with the team. “I met him once before a game, in a team meeting, he leads us in carries during the game and has a kickoff return.
“That in itself was impressive.”
He also has something that no other running back on the roster can claim, legitimate speed. Jones was timed at 4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2008 and ran a 4.37 40 at 5-10, 215 pounds at his college pro day that year.
But for a number of reasons, mostly injury related, he never got that chance with the Cowboys on much of a full-time basis.
His best season came in 2010, when he appeared in all 16 games, seven of them starts, rushing for 800 yards on 185 carries with 48 receptions for another 450 yards.
“I don’t know. I really can’t say,” said Jones of why he never became the Cowboys’ full-time starter. “I went out and gave it my best. I can’t answer that. That’s something for a coach to answer. I just know that I went out and did my best and gave it my all.”
Now, Jones is giving his all to quickly learn the Steelers playbook at least to the point where he can contribute this weekend if called upon.
“I’ve got confidence in myself and what I can do,” Jones said. “Every play that I get I want to go out and make the most of it. I just want to go out there and take advantage of the opportunities that I get, try to make plays and have fun with it. You’ve always got to put your best foot forward.
“I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve got a way that I study. So I’m just excited to get going.”
Odds and end zones
Rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones was a full participant in practice for the Steelers Thursday after being limited with a chest injury on Wednesday. … Fullback Will Johnson (hamstring) and tight end Heath Miller (knee) were partial participants. … Bell (foot) did not practice.