There he goes again.
With eager defenders closing, Minneapolis Washburn standout running back Jeff Jones plants his left foot and suddenly bursts right, cutting back against the grain for 39 yards last Friday against Minneapolis Southwest. The play ended like so many others this season, with Jones cradling the football in the end zone and dazed defenders wondering how to secure a loose fire hose.
Few have succeeded. Jones, a rising star since his freshman year, has been dominant this fall. The senior has rushed for 1,093 yards and 27 touchdowns. Add six touchdown receptions and a punt return to the house for a whopping total of 34 scores in only seven games.
His ability to change direction in stride — an exceptional skill, according to one recruiting analyst — has created uneasiness among Gophers fans. Caught up in the excitement of signing day last February, Jones gave a verbal commitment to the program. Later, he decided to reopen the recruiting process as more schools showed interest.
Solid performances at national camps during the spring and summer heightened Jones’ profile. Currently the only four-star prospect in the Gophers’ 2014 recruiting class, Jones now lists Minnesota, Iowa State, Michigan State, Missouri and others, including Illinois and Oklahoma, among his preferred schools.
“Really, I don’t have a ranking, but I can tell you that I’m going to take an official [visit] to Minnesota,” said the 6-1, 200-pound Jones, who has made unofficial visits to Minnesota and Iowa State and has worked out for Michigan State. “Every school that I take an official to has a possibility.”
There is no timetable for those official visits, said Jones, whose focus this fall is on making his possibilities reality. Seeking structure and academic guidance, he spends weeknights at the home of Missy Lee, a Washburn teacher whose son, Fortay Johnson, is a friend of Jones. He will take the ACT this month. He has been told he will graduate on time.
Further support comes early at school most mornings with Millers football coach Giovan Jenkins. The pair work out in the weight room and gym, or jog to Minnehaha Creek.
“He’s definitely matured,” said Lee, who Jones called his second mother. “He’s got some work to do academically but he’s definitely putting in the work now, more than I’ve seen in the past.”
Cutback ability is what sets Jones apart, said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. Jones, he said, “does a lot of things well but what he does exceptionally well is change direction faster than most.”
A fierce running style also serves Jones well. During the 39-yard touchdown run last Friday, he sent a would-be Southwest tackler tumbling like he fell off a moving car.
“I’m not very fast; I don’t have that 4.3 speed but one thing I do have is my first step,” Jones said. “I can get through the hole fast and get to the second level.”
What Helmholdt called a “phenomenal outing” in Chicago as part of the Rivals Camp Series earned Jones broader interest. Jones, rated No. 91 overall in the latest Rivals rankings, said his time spent on the recruiting trail was a revelation.
“I’ve learned a lot about politics and how colleges want this kid more than that kid or how this kid is first on their recruiting list but they would like to get this other kid, too,” Jones said. “What it does is it matures you and makes you humble. When you see you’re No. 91 on the recruiting list, it’s like, ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was.’ ”
He said he learned a hard lesson after a disappointing junior season. Coming off an impressive sophomore year, Jones missed an August two-a-day practice session and was benched for 1½ games. His rushing and touchdown totals in 2012 tailed off from the year before.
“I looked at my junior year highlight tape and I was like, ‘I cannot have another season like that,’ ” Jones said. “I didn’t see the things I usually see out of myself. I kept having this cutback problem. I wasn’t going off instinct. I was undisciplined.”
With that in mind, Jones traded AAU basketball this summer for football workouts. Following the advice of Willie Jones, his hardworking paternal grandfather — “You don’t grind, you don’t shine” — Jones got in the weight room and ran hills.
Said Jenkins: “He’s back to being humble but hungry. He doesn’t give me reasons why he doesn’t want to be here.”
Distraction came again this fall, however, as rumors swirled he was transferring to powerhouse Eden Prairie.
“Really, it was just a thought,” Jones said, declining to elaborate on the situation. “But I’m here at Washburn and things are working out. I bleed blue and orange.”
Gophers fans must wait and watch to find out whether Minnesota maroon and gold run through Jones’s veins. The rush that came with making an early verbal commitment has given way to a larger view of what the college football world has to offer.
“I see some things in other schools that I also see in Minnesota that could also be a great chance for me,” Jones said.
Jones, who hopes to play right away in college at running back or slot receiver, plans to make his announcement Feb. 5 on national signing day. He visualizes sitting down at a table with hats representing a handful of colleges and choosing the best fit.
“I can honestly say since I was about in the sixth grade, I saw it on TV and I just wanted to do that,” Jones said. “I always wanted to pick up the hat.”