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Marcus Jones concentrated on catching the ball during spring practice.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Frosh makes most of Minnesota frost

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • August 10, 2011 - 9:24 AM

Marcus Jones has rocketed from undersized recruit to know-nothing newcomer to potential starter, all in seven months -- and his freshman year hasn't officially begun yet. And the credit, the 17-year-old North Carolinian said, belongs with ...

Minnesota's brutal winter?

Well, all that snow and cold is good for something after all.

"When I got here, it was so cold, it threw me off a little bit. I hadn't experienced that before, and I struggled a little bit," the Gophers freshman receiver said. "But it was good for me -- whenever I wasn't practicing, I was hitting the books, doing homework and studying the offense. It worked out pretty good."

Better than he could have hoped. Jones was a cornerback in high school, one of the top 100 in the nation according to one of the recruiting services, and assumed he would simply take that role in college. But his 5-8 frame, and the Gophers' lack of depth at receiver, prompted coach Jerry Kill to alter those plans.

"I was unsure about the switch, but Coach Kill told me it would all work out for me, and it has," said Jones, the Gophers' second-youngest player. (He'll turn 18 on Oct. 2, two days before offensive lineman Foster Bush.) "Actually, I was surprised how much playing time I got in the spring."

Part of that was a crash course in receiving, but he also earned the repetitions with his play. By the end of the spring, Kill had decided that Jones would play right away this fall, catching passes and perhaps returning punts, and nothing he has seen in the first two days of training camp has changed his mind.

"He's gotten better. He's bigger, [175 pounds], something like that. He's probably a little quicker than he was in the spring, and he's certainly more confident," Kill said. "That's one advantage of having a freshman here [for spring drills] -- he's like a redshirt freshman."

He even got a jump on his schoolwork. By graduating from high school in Wake Forest, N.C., early and enrolling in college in January, Jones has a semester of work already behind him -- and with a 3.7 grade-point average -- toward his goal of a mechanical engineering degree.

But doesn't he miss playing defense?

"Not really," Jones said. "It's hard to miss it when you've got the ball in your hands."

Speed racer

Jones was also being touted as the Gophers' fastest player in the spring, but a few head-to-head races over the summer have clarified that issue, and with a surprising answer.

"Actually, I'm the fastest guy on the team," junior Keanon Cooper said.

Yeah, right. A linebacker, one who runs with a pigeon-toed stride, is faster than the wide receivers, than the cornerbacks?

Apparently so. Jones confirmed it, saying he had lost a pair of races to Cooper, and Troy Stoudermire, who holds several school records for kickoff returns, even conceded the point. Sort of.

"I'll give it to Coop. He beat me. He beat me by a step, [so I've] got to give it to him -- the Texas boy is fast," said Stoudermire, who attended the same high school, Skyline High School in Dallas, as Cooper. "This is what happened: The first race I won, but they said I jumped [early]. The second race, I got a late jump because I didn't want to [foul] again."

However it happened, Cooper is happy to claim the title. "Troy's been telling me he's faster since high school," Cooper said, "and we finally got to run."

Etc.

• Wide receiver Quentin Gardener, who signed a letter of intent with the Gophers in February, has returned to his Denton, Texas, home, ineligible because of insufficient test scores, he told GopherIllustrated.com. Kill declined to comment.

• BTN had a stage set up near one end zone of the practice field Tuesday and conducted interviews with Kill and several players during the day for an upcoming training camp show.

• There were a couple of minor shoving skirmishes during practice, including one between offensive tackle Ed Olson and defensive end D.L. Wilhite that prompted Kill to call Wilhite over for a lecture. "He just said I've got to play smarter," Wilhite said. "He knows I'm a fiery guy, real competitive, but you make a decision like that, it's going to end with me being on the sideline."

• The Gophers resume workouts at 3:55 p.m. Wednesday. It's open to the public.

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