Felix Jones finally the man for Cowboys

SAN ANTONIO -- We've been waiting a long time for this moment.

Felix Jones finally enters a season as the starting running back for the Dallas Cowboys.

The man he learned from, Marion Barber, has moved on to the Chicago Bears.

When Barber was here, he knocked over defenders, was dependable on third-and-short and provided the spark the running game needed.

Barber's physical gifts left him over time, and the Cowboys decided to go in a different direction by cutting him and giving Jones the starting gig.

"A great mentor," Jones said of Barber. "He shows you how to be a running back and how to be a professional and all of those aspects. He's a good person, a good personality, a true teacher of the game. I learned a lot from him."

When Jones burst onto the scene in 2008, he scored on his first carry. But after three years, Jones has just seven rushing touchdowns to his credit, four over the past two seasons.

Running backs coach Skip Peete says Jones was never healthy his first two seasons. The running back from Arkansas battled toe, knee and hamstring problems. He's been listed on the injury report 11 times in his three pro seasons.

Now he's the starter. Full-time. There is no turning back for the Cowboys.

Jones always has been considered a complementary back, whether it was behind Darren McFadden at Arkansas or here with Barber.

Peete likes to say that nobody cares who the starting running back is because every back will touch the ball. And while that's true, it is important for the starting running back to set the tone.

The question is, can Jones set the tone for the running game? In his first three seasons, he ran specialty plays. Now, he's the back the Cowboys are depending on to produce on first and second downs.

"Everybody has their competition level where they want to be the best," Jones said. "Obviously, I want to be the best player and I continue to keep thinking like that and I want to compete and be better in my craft. That's how I look at it."

There was a play Sunday during the Cowboys' Blue-White scrimmage where Jones took a swing pass along the sideline, juked Bradie James and put on that extra burst to run past Alan Ball and gain 10 more yards. Jones is running more and more like he's the man, though he won't say it.

"He is the alpha and omega now," joked Peete.

Jones has statistics like a backup. Over 16 games in 2010, he had only one rushing first down on third down, one touchdown out of 19 carries in the red zone and 390 yards after contact.

Those numbers must increase this season.

Yes, the Cowboys will also hand the ball to Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray. And maybe one of the young kids who have been impressive in training camp -- Lonyae Miller or Phillip Tanner -- will make the 53-man roster.

But this season, more than any other, is about Jones and his ability to lead the rushing attack. He's shown flashes of what he can do in his career, with 25 carries of 10 or more yards and nine games in which he rushed for over 75 yards.

Jones will always be compared to that great 2008 running back class that featured Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles and Ray Rice. Jones has become the forgotten man. It's as if the Cowboys made a mistake drafting him at No. 22 overall.

"Ever since I got drafted, really ever since I got to Arkansas, I've been trying to do what I can do on the field," Jones said. "Every opportunity I can get, I try to maximize it any way. That's how I look it. Just go out there and show what you got. Do your best and don't worry about being compared to who."

Scouts and coaches will tell you Jones has great vision and gets faster when he's got a lane, like somebody had been holding him back and decided to let him go.

The Cowboys won't hold back Jones this season.

"I play running back, and a running back has to do it all," he said. "You have to go out there and make the play happen."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.