Eastern running back has previously faced California's Jahvid Best back in 2007 when they competed for the California high school 100-meter championship
Taiwan Jones and Jahvid Best have matched-up their talents before. So it was ironic that the two running backs both scored long touchdowns on the opening offensive play in their respective college football games last week.
And, adding even more irony, they play each other Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., as Jones' Eastern Washington Eagles take on Best's California Golden Bears.
As a high school senior in 2007 at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif., Jones went against Best (Vallejo, Calif. & Salesian High School) for the 100-meter title at the California Interscholastic Federation Championships. After they finished with the two best times in the preliminaries, Best won the title with a wind-aided time of 10.31. Jones settled for fourth with a 10.58 clocking, but during the year had a 10.53 time to his credit. Best's best was a 10.36 clocking.
Then, along came college football.
Best is now California's Heisman Trophy candidate, and Jones has stepped in is Eastern's new starting running back. Last Saturday (Sept. 5) in EWU's season-opener against Western Oregon, Jones scored on an 87-yard touchdown on his first carry in a game since his senior year in high school in 2006.
"We had an idea he could do that, but we didn't necessarily think it was going to be play one for 87 yards," said Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin. "It was an explosive way to start."
Jones finished with 122 yards and two scores on 12 carries. It was EWU's first 100-yard rushing performance since Dale Morris had 130 in the 2007 FCS Playoffs against McNeese State.
"He can do that at any time, and that's a dimension to our offense we didn't have last year," said Baldwin of the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Jones. "Our running backs were good players last year, but we really didn't have that home run ability. That can make a huge difference because it's hard to consistently go on 10 or 12 play drives and score a lot of points. In the long run, you have to have some big plays made.
"On top of that, he's a good running back," Baldwin added. "Sometimes his speed is what people talk about, but between the tackles he runs hard and he is tough. He showed that down on the goal line."
Jones originally came to EWU as a running back, but with four seniors on the roster in 2008, he played instead as a cornerback. He had 54 tackles and four passes broken up in seven games as a cornerback in 2008 after missing the first half of the season with a broken fibula.
Jones was a talented running back in high school, and his skill with the ball led the coaches to give him some repetitions at wide receiver for the Eagles late in the 2008 season. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry as a senior in high school as he finished with a total of 1,466 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns to earn San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro honors.
Jones had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown for the Eagles last season against Northern Colorado, which further cemented the need to get the ball in his hands as a running back.
"Taiwan is obviously a dynamic athlete, and he wasn't able to show that a lot last year," explained Baldwin. "But we saw glimpses of it, like his kickoff return against Northern Colorado. He's a special player with the ball in his hands."
Q: Your first carry against Western Oregon was an 87-yard touchdown run. How did you feel before the game and how long did it take to calm yourself down?
A: "I was just excited to be out there and go against an opponent again. The coaches had held me out of scrimmages, so it was exciting just to play again and see what I could do."
Q: Last year you played cornerback on defense. Talk about your transition to running back.
A: "I played running back in high school, so the transition wasn't that hard. As far as learning the plays and my assignments, it's a challenge but I'm coming along with that. It's been fun to move back to running back."
Q: Was the position change something you were willing to embrace right away?
A: "I'm willing to play any position to help out my team. Since we lost a lot of senior running backs and already had a lot of threats in our receiving corps, I think it was a pretty easy choice to play at running back."
Q: There are a lot of veterans on this year's team. Do you try to exert yourself as a leader or do you just try to do your job and fill-in where needed?
A: "I try my best to follow in the footsteps of those guys. They are veterans and they have a lot of experience playing college football. I just try to learn from them, and they've been doing a good job of helping me."
Q: Those veterans, including senior quarterback Matt Nichols, must make the transition to running back a little easier.
A: "Matt Nichols is a great leader. He saw that I was a little nervous before the Western Oregon game, so he talked with me and tried to calm me down. It's fun playing with Matt and the rest of those guys."
Q: With all the weapons you have, it seems like the sky is the limit with this offense.
A: "We all complement each other and there are weapons across the board. I think it makes it hard for opponents to scheme against us."
Q: This week you hit the road and take on the Cal Bears. Players at the FCS level think of themselves as good players, but is there a chip on your shoulder when you play against the more talented FBS teams?
A: "Everybody at this level thinks of themselves as great athletes, but we are going to get put to the test against Cal. I'm excited for the game because I'm going back to my hometown. We'll try to put on a show."
Q: How excited are you to show your talents on this kind of stage and show what you can do?
A: "It's been over a year since I've been a running back, but I like to think I'm still good at what I do. Hopefully I can show that this Saturday."
Q: Eastern's status is a little up in the air with the appeal of the post-season ban the NCAA handed down. How is the team dealing with that ban?
A: "When you're in our locker room, it's hard to know we even have the sanctions. Our seniors are doing a good job of looking forward. Matt Nichols spoke to us before the Western Oregon game and talked about how it's a privilege to play college football and to be thankful for the games we do have. We'll just have to move forward from there."
Q: That would sink a lot of teams because of not knowing if you are playing for anything. But it sounds like you have enough veteran leadership to handle that.
A: "Matt Nichols is a great leader by example. He treats each game like it's the playoffs. When you are an underclassman and have senior leadership like that, it's easy to get behind them each game knowing you are playing for something."