'Special' freshman impresses Kill

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2011 - 11:38 PM

Marcus Jones has lined up with the starters, usually as a slot receiver, virtually from the first snap of drills, and he has spent time receiving punts, too. He is almost certainly the fastest player on the team.

Gophers receiver Marcus Jones (8) during spring practice.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Jerry Kill doesn't have any aversion to playing a true freshman. It's just that he's naturally skeptical about most teenagers' ability to adjust to college football so quickly.

"In my college career, I haven't seen very many ready to play," Kill said Tuesday. "They've got to learn [the playbook], handle school -- they've got to be special."

Which tells you how much he thinks of 17-year-old receiver Marcus Jones.

"He'll play as a freshman," the Gophers coach said definitively. "You've got to be special to handle it, and he's handled it real well."

Jones graduated early from Rolesville High in Wake Forest, N.C., and enrolled right away at Minnesota in order to be eligible for spring football. Not a bad idea, considering how much the Gophers need his unique skill set.

Jones has lined up with the starters, usually as a slot receiver, virtually from the first snap of drills, and he has spent time receiving punts, too. The freshman is almost certainly the fastest player on the team, and that's going to be critical for an offense that's short on receivers and wants variety in its play-calling.

"You need guys who are game-changers, and his speed and quickness makes him a game-changer," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "He gets that ball and everybody holds their breath, because they think something great is going to happen."

Certainly his likely quarterback thinks great things will happen, and not necessarily only to Jones.

"He has blazing speed," said quarterback MarQueis Gray. "Jones is going to take some [defenders] off Da'Jon [McKnight, the Gophers' top receiver]. A guy with that kind of speed inside, you have no choice but to guard him."

Who could guard a small (5-8, 168 pounds) and speedy sparkplug like him? Well, Jones might have been a good place to start. He played cornerback and tailback in high school, scoring 19 touchdowns to help lead Rolesville to a 14-2 record and the North Carolina state title game last fall. Kill believes the teen, who originally committed to Northern Illinois and then came with Kill to Minnesota, might be more comfortable on defense.

Switching positions has made the transition to college ball that much tougher, and his quick study that much more impressive.

"He's just a natural," Limegrover said. "He's a wonderful athlete, and we think he'll help us right away."

No. 2 QB battle

Tom Parish hit receiver A.J. Barker with a 40-yard pass during Tuesday's scrimmage, then learned that he had been "sacked" by linemen who aren't allowed to hit him.

That's pretty typical of his spring. The redshirt freshman quarterback is making progress toward winning a role as Gray's backup -- but he's taken some steps back, too.

"It's coming so fast. You've got to slow yourself down, make sure you process everything, then try to perform on the practice field. But from Day 1 of practice, I'm 100 times more confident than I was," said the Hartland, Wis., native. "So far I'm happy with where I'm going, but not at all with where I am."

That sums up the coaches' take, too. Parish fumbled a snap Tuesday, which annoyed Kill, but also ignored traffic to loft a perfect throw into double coverage.

"He stood right in the face of the guy getting ready to hit him in the mouth and threw a heck of a ball," Kill said. "He would have been picked off the turf, [but] it was a great throw in the face of adversity."

It's way too early to say he's the Gophers' No. 2, but Parish has received far more work this spring than every other QB except Gray.

"We're starting to see [progress] on the field," Limegrover said. "His presence in the huddle, being able to take control and get things communicated, he's done really well with it. He's coming along very well."

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