Can You Compare Jones To Randle El?

FAYETTEVILLE - You could toss out several names concerning whose cleatsteps Matt Jones will follow while trying to make the transition from college quarterback to NFL receiver.

Kordell "Slash" Stewart is the most memorable first. Then there was (is) Hines Ward.

But there's another Pittsburgh Steeler whose name keeps coming up as folks try and project the impact Arkansas' former quarterback might make with Jacksonville's Jaquars after being the 21st pick in last weekend's 2005 NFL Draft.

There are serious similarities in athletic ability.

But most comparisons end there.

Got to cover lots of intriguing folks and events while working for Knight Ridder in Indianapolis from 1999-2000.

Bob Knight's last game at Indiana (a stomping by Pepperdine in the NCAA Tournament's first round in snow-covered Buffalo), then his firing.

Purdue (now San Diego Chargers) quarterback Drew Brees' spectacular junior season.

Boilermakers football coach Joe Tiller's offensive wizardry.

Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady's fiery run to the Elite Eight in Albuquerque, led by salty senior forward Brian Cardinal (now a Memphis Grizzly).

Whippings administered by Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. in Conseco Fieldhouse.

Shaq and Kobe vs. Reggie Miller and company in the 2000 NBA Finals.

The Indy 500. Ah, forget that. Wish I could.

None of those, though, carried the absolute electric charge of little (5-foot-10, and that's a stretch, 192 pounds) Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El, who largely toiled in obscurity in front of tiny home crowds and a few regional TV audiences.

Because Purdue's was the most successful state football program at the time - by far - and Brees was on a tear, I only covered two of Randle El's games. Taped others on TV, watched tape every week, attended practices and press conferences and did some one-on-ones with the dude.

But let's rewind.

Like Jones at Fort Smith's Northside High, Randle El was an all-this and all-that in football and basketball at Thorton High in Riverdale, Ill. But Randle El took it a step further, also excelling in baseball. In 1996, he was named the Illinois Gatorade (football) Player of the Year and he led all Illinois prepsters in assists. In '97, the Chicago Cubs drafted him in the 14th round.

Just about everyone wanted Randle El on their football team, but as a cornerback or receiver.

Only then-new Indiana coach Cam Cameron (who had been an NFL offensive coordinator) offered him a real shot at quarterback.

Playing behind center, Randle El drove opponents mad from the get-go with incredible acceleration, crazy zig-zags and an uncanny ability to judge a defender's intent about five steps early. He scored 86 touchdowns, became the only player in Division I history to pass for at least 6,000 yards (7,469) and rush for at least 3,000 (3,895), and he was named to the All-Big Ten first team as a senior.

Early in that senior season, Cameron tried Randle El at wide receiver, much the way Arkansas coach Houston Nutt dreamed of doing with Jones here. Problem was, pocket-passer Tom Jones couldn't get the ball to Randle El. So despite Randle El's desire to catch rather than pitch (to prepare for the draft), he was moved back to quarterback, although he still occasionally floated to receiver and even sometimes punted.

Jones, of course, much preferred to play quarterback, one of the main reasons the wide receiver experiments were not carried out in full here.

Meantime, as Jones did for one season under Nolan Richardson and another under Stan Heath, Randle El played basketball for Knight (1998-99) and briefly for the IU baseball team (2001).

The comparisons largely end there.

The opposite of the soft-spoken Jones, Randle El was an extremely outgoing and yappy team leader with expressive eyes and hands. Not in a trash-talk way, but rather a manly, "Follow my lead, by gosh," manner.

To a man, the Hoosiers did just that.

Speed is similar (other-worldly) as are the hands (ditto), but size is a huge difference in Randle El and Jones. At 6-6, 242 pounds, Jones will be an easy target. He should be presented with plenty of lofty opportunities after lining up mostly wide.

Randle El, largely a third-down and red-zone role player, mostly scampers from the slot.

Despite being a first-teamer on the Football Writers Association's national squad, Randle El fell to the second round, where Pittsburgh snagged him with the 62nd pick of the 2002 NFL Draft.

But his stock has risen dramatically, much as Jones' recently did with mind-boggling NFL Combine performances and his willingness to embrace the move to receiver.

For his Pittsburgh career, Randle El has 127 receptions for 1,454 yards and 6 touchdowns. He has rushed 42 times for 245 more and leads the Steelers in kickoff (23.1-yard average with 1 TD) and punt returns (9.6 with 2 TDs). Of 13 passes (goal-line situations or on wide receiver tosses), Randle El has completed 11 for 61 yards and a TD.

Last season, Randle El broke loose after Plaxico Burress was busted up. Starting in his place five times, Randle El snagged 43 passes for 601 yards and 3 TDs, second-best on the team. He also rushed 8 times for 34 yards.

Jones, like Randle El, probably will line up as a quarterback in some goal-line or tricky situations. He also has been mentioned as a return man by the Jaguars.

Similarities, yes.

But there are major differences in the best athletes from Indiana and Arkansas that these old blue eyes have seen.

The biggest?

Expect Jones to catch on to this NFL stuff even faster than the explosive Randle El.

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