Throwing his weight around (all 170 pounds of it)

  • Article by: MICHAEL RAND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2011 - 11:50 AM

Marcus Jones isn't physically imposing, but his skills as a kick returner and receiver gives the Gophers a much-needed weapon.

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Gophers true freshman Marcus Jones ran back a kickoff for a touchdown against Michigan, only to have it nullified by a penalty. He did it again against Purdue, and that time his 92-yard return in the third quarter counted.

Photo: Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

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Gophers football coach Jerry Kill tried to add some weight to true freshman Marcus Jones merely with his words Tuesday, saying the slightly built 5-8 wide receiver/kick returner was up to a "buck-75, buck-80" instead of his listed weight of 170.

Later, though, Jones shook his head. "I might be tipping 170," he said, adding that in the spring he was all the way up to 172 but felt too heavy. He smiled, though, at the thought of his coach talking up his weight.

"I might look like it," he said with a laugh while glancing down at his arms, "and that's fine, too."

There is no confusion over this: Jones is playing big. Though he just turned 18 earlier this month and is often the smallest player on the field, Jones has been one of the most noticeable standouts on a team long on youth and short on highlights.

Jones ran back a kickoff for a touchdown against Michigan, only to have it nullified by a penalty. A week later against Purdue, he did the same thing -- only this one counted. As a receiver, he's tied for third on the team with eight catches, including a career-high 32-yarder against Purdue. He'll have a chance to continue that roll Saturday when the Gophers play host to Nebraska.

"Because I'm small, people expect me to sit out, but I refuse to," Jones said.

"I get back up and play football. That's my job."

Hard work and a big decision are paying off early. Kill originally recruited Jones, a North Carolina native, to play at Northern Illinois. Then Kill took the Minnesota job in December and Jones -- who was slated to graduate a semester early from high school -- was suddenly in limbo.

"It was scary at the time. I kind of went into panic mode, trying to figure out what I was going to do," Jones said. "But Coach Z [quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski] kept talking to me, telling me everything would be fine."

Though a couple other schools were interested, Jones eventually decided to follow Kill and his staff to Minnesota.

"You come here, and the first thing is you see is all the national championships," Jones said. "And I already knew what type of guy Coach Kill is. He wants to win and wants to work hard. Coming up here and seeing it, it became complete. You get a chance to play in the Big Ten, you jump at it."

Jones enrolled for spring semester, enabling him to make an impression during spring football practices. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said that early exposure was critical -- both for Jones' learning process and for coaches to get an early look at what he could do.

"If we're going to run a reverse or do something out of the ordinary, not only do you know he'll get the job done, but he'll be in the right spot," Limegrover said.

"He's a neat kid from the standpoint of his focus and maturity."

Those traits have carried over to the classroom, where Kill said Jones has a GPA of better than 3.5 so far. Of course, as Jones noted, those marks came during the spring and summer -- not during the grind of a fall football season. Maintaining a balance between classwork and football is "challenging," Jones said. But it's all part of a learning curve that Jones has conquered so far.

As the team progresses, so too should Jones. Quarterback MarQueis Gray talked about doing a better job of getting him the ball in open spaces. Jones said he envisions a young squad progressing "so that in a year or two, we're ready" for big things.

Even if they come in small packages.

"[Jones] can meld and morph into a lot of different things," Limegrover said.

"He'll definitely continue to have a role because he won't let it be any other way. He'll make himself a valuable piece."

  • GOPHERS VS. NO. 13 NEBRASKA

    2:30 p.m. Saturday • TCF Bank Stadium TV: Ch. 5 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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