“I want to apologize to the state of Minnesota, and the University of Minnesota …”
When those words came out of Jeff Jones’ mouth Wednesday morning, any Gophers fan listening probably assumed the worst.
But Jones wasn’t about to spoil National Signing Day for the Gophers.
“… for taking so long.”
And with that apology for the months of drama, he grabbed a maroon Minnesota hat from a bag, slid it on his head and soaked in the loud applause from the students at Minneapolis Washburn High School.
Rated by Rivals.com as the nation’s No. 44 overall recruit and No. 7 running back, Jones became the highest-ranked recruit to sign with the Gophers in at least a decade.
Jones still needs to qualify academically, but he was among the key recruiting battles coach Jerry Kill won with his fourth class at Minnesota.
Rivals.com ranked the Gophers’ class No. 53 in the nation and eighth out of the 14-team Big Ten Conference that soon will include Rutgers and Maryland. Kill’s previous two classes ranked last in the Big Ten.
“We’ve moved our team forward,” Kill said. “We believe that with all our heart.”
The primary needs were at the offensive skill positions. Jones and Rodney Smith, from Jonesboro, Ga., boosted the running back depth for a team with David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood entering their senior year.
Desperate for wide receivers, the Gophers added three players rated by Rivals.com as three-star recruits — Melvin Holland Jr., Isaiah Gentry and Conner Krizancic. Kill noted their size. Holland is 6-3, Gentry is 6-4 and Krizancic is 6-2.
“They’ve got length and speed, and that’s how you win right now,” Kill said.
At quarterback, the Gophers added Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dual-threat passer from Kansas City, Kan., who had offers from Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
And the Gophers continued to stockpile athletic tight ends: Gaelin Elmore (Somerset, Wis.), Brandon Lingen (Wayzata) and Jerry Gibson (Theodore, Ala.).
Elmore had offers from Wisconsin, Nebraska and Vanderbilt.
“He’s 6-6, 240,” Kill said. “He can run. He’s a great basketball player. He can 360-dunk. He was recruited by everybody.”
Gibson visited South Carolina last weekend but stuck with his commitment to the Gophers.
“We were very fortunate because South Carolina made a last-second rush,” Kill said. “[Coach] Steve Spurrier, all those people were in his house.”
The Gophers lost some key battles, too. Chanhassen offensive lineman Frank Ragnow picked Arkansas over them on Friday. Khari Blasingame, a defensive back from New Market, Ala., flipped his commitment from Minnesota to Vanderbilt.
Kill acknowledged he got nervous about losing Jones, too. Twelve months ago, Jones gave the Gophers a verbal commitment, but he called it a soft commitment and kept his options open.
Iowa State made a strong push, and after he was named Co-MVP at the Under Armour All-American Game last month, Florida and Michigan invited him for official visits.
“I get a little bit concerned when you’re talking about Florida and Michigan, and all those people coming in,” Kill said. “He had a great all-star game and got great exposure, and the more exposure you get, the more it can make your head spin.”
Other schools might have pursued Jones harder if he already had qualified academically for Division I. Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins said Jones still needs to raise his ACT score by one point and raise his grade-point average by two-tenths of a point.
Jones will retake the ACT exam on Saturday and would have up to two more chances to take it before his eligibility decision for 2014 is finalized.
“I know he’ll get it,” Giovan Jenkins said. “… We’re not concerned about how many times he’s going to take it. We’re concerned about him studying for it and giving his best effort.”
MarQueis Gray and Thomas Tapeh are among the Gophers in recent years who were unable to play their first year because of their ACT score. Both eventually became big contributors who earned their degrees.
“I’m not worried about [Jones qualifying]; I guess that’s the best way to put it,” Kill said. “We’ve done our research, and those kinds of things. That’s what our job is.”
If and when Jones qualifies, he will become a candidate to play immediately. Even if the Gophers stick with Cobb at tailback, coming off a 1,200-yard season, Jones could move to slot receiver as a true freshman.
Jones racked up 42 touchdowns for Washburn last season, with eight of those coming on receptions.
“He’s the best player from Minnesota and one of the best running backs in the country,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “I think he could become an impact player for [the Gophers]; that’s what they really need.”
Kill said he felt confident Jones would stick with the Gophers because their relationship dates to a summer camp after Jones’ freshman year. That’s when the Gophers became the first team to offer Jones a scholarship.
Jones also is friends with Ra’Shede Hageman, the former Washburn standout who became a first-team All-Big Ten defensive end and is a projected first-round NFL draft pick. Kill helped Hageman work through his own academic concerns and saw him earn a degree last fall.
Jones hopes his decision can influence future recruits. He didn’t name names, but Cretin-Derham Hall defensive lineman Jashon Cornell ranks No. 1 by ESPN in class of 2015.
“That was my goal,” Jones said. “Hopefully after I sign, there are other kids coming behind me that will realize staying home is not a bad idea.”