Jeff Jones did not get an invitation to this month’s Under Armour All-American Game until the ESPN organizers were scrambling to fill a roster hole because of another player’s injury.
All that did was motivate Jones more.
For months, the standout senior running back from Minneapolis Washburn had been fueled by a belief that Minnesota recruits don’t get their due nationally.
Sure enough, in a game featuring six of the nation’s top 25 recruits, Jones came off the bench and earned co-MVP honors with a series of impressive plays featuring his trademark fast-motion cutback moves.
“I felt great because I knew I wasn’t just doing it for me,” Jones said. “I knew I was doing it for the seventh- or eighth-grader coming up next year. I felt like it opens up those recruiters’ eyes to say, ‘There is some talent here in Minnesota. You better go give it a look.’ ”
Recruiters have flocked to see Jones, who plans to announce his college choice on National Signing Day, Feb. 5. He made a verbal commitment to the Gophers last February but later decided to keep his options open.
He had official visits scheduled to Florida and Michigan until those schools pulled back last week. Tennessee has made a late run to join Minnesota and Iowa State among his finalists.
Jones, who scored 42 touchdowns last fall, heads the Star Tribune’s 16th Super Preps class, an annual look at the state’s best blue-chip college football prospects. Rivals.com ranks him as the nation’s 44th-best recruit in this year’s class. According to the website’s database, he is the first four-star running back from Minnesota since at least 2002.
Between 1986 and 2001, Minnesota produced a few running backs who were nationally coveted recruits, including Darrell Thompson, Carl McCullough, Thomas Tapeh and Rashon Powers-Neal. But they have been few and far between.
Thompson, now a Gophers radio analyst, said the 6-foot, 198-pound Jones “has great vision and runs with a ferocity that’s a little unique.”
“He has a little bit of a little man’s complex — in a good way, almost like Percy Harvin,” Thompson said. “I think it’ll translate to the next level and make him a good running back in college.
“He looks like he’s got the tools. If he can keep it together, he could be very good for the University of Minnesota, or wherever he goes.”
The suspense is killing hardcore Gophers fans. If Jones signs elsewhere, they’ll surely be disappointed, especially with the team coming off a resurgent 8-5 season in its third year under coach Jerry Kill.
“I think the potential benefit of adding him is greater than the negative perception of not getting him,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “I mean, guys change commitments all the time.
“If they’re able to keep him, the perception would be outstanding for future recruiting. And they’d have a tremendous football player who I think will have an instant impact on their program.”
Jones certainly wouldn’t be the first top-ranked Minnesota player to slip away from the Gophers. In the past 12 years, they’ve signed the state’s top-ranked player in the Rivals.com ratings just twice — in 2007 with four-star defensive end Anthony Jacobs from Northfield, and in 2011 with three-star offensive lineman Tommy Olson from Mahtomedi.
The Gophers were the first team to offer Jones a scholarship, and that came after his freshman year at Washburn.
“It’s going to be very hard for anybody to come in in the 13th hour and make up the ground [the Gophers coaches] have already made up in the two or three years they’ve known the man,” Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins said.
Jones has yet to qualify academically to play Division I, but he has up to three more chances to take the ACT exam. The next one Feb. 8.
“I’m not on pins and needles at all,” Jenkins said. “I believe he will get the score he needs. He’s about a point away on the ACT and two [-tenths of a point] on his GPA, and I’m confident he’ll make that up.
“And to be honest with you, if he goes to junior college, he’ll be fine as well. He’s a young man who, in 10th grade, struggled a little bit, and he’s paying the price for that now. But he knows that if it’s meant to be for him to be at the Division I level, he’ll be there.”
Jenkins noted that former Minneapolis Washburn standout Ra’Shede Hageman took the ACT exam several times before qualifying. Hageman had academic issues at Minnesota under former coach Tim Brewster, but Kill and his staff helped him turn around. Hageman not only graduated, but he became a first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle and is projected as a possible first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft.
“Coach Kill is real, and he’s direct, and he’s going to hold them accountable,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know about the other [coaching] staffs. I know they like to win football games. But I don’t know if they’re really in tune with the young man and what he needs after college.
“With Coach Kill and his staff, the proof is in the pudding. He did a great job retaining Ra’Shede.”
Jones said Hageman “calls me every now and then to make sure I’m doing all right.”
The Gophers had three consecutive running backs drafted into the NFL last decade — Tapeh (2004), Marion Barber III (2005) and Lawrence Maroney (2006) — but Jones said he didn’t watch those Minnesota teams play.
“They have great tradition there with players overall,” Jones said.
“Not to say anything toward Brewster, but since he’s been here, everybody’s been looking down on the Gophers. Somehow, Kill’s been finding a way to get the players in there that we need to win.”
Jenkins has watched young children stop Jones for autographs and seen old-timers stop him to talk about Minneapolis football lore. Jones entertains all comers and flashes an easygoing smile.
“He understands what it means for him to continue to be the face of Minnesota football,” Jenkins said.
Jones has been a source of pride for his south Minneapolis neighborhood since eighth grade, when he scored 85 touchdowns one season playing for an AAU team.
In 2010, Washburn was devastated when running back Montrell Wade had to miss his senior season after being injured in a gun accident. Wade had rushed for 2,000 yards as a junior, and outsiders wondered how the Millers would replace him.
In stepped Jones, who had his strong build even as a freshman.
“He’s not a kid who’s really ever hit the weights tremendously hard,” Jenkins said. “That’s something that could have been better. He’s just a naturally strong, wired kid.”
Jones rushed for 809 yards as a freshman, 1,310 as a sophomore and 1,002 as a junior.
He was ranked as the nation’s 169th-best player in his recruiting class when he first committed to the Gophers last February. He jumped to No. 91 after his performance in the summer camp circuit.
As a senior, he had 1,525 rushing yards and 493 receiving yards. Sometimes Washburn lined him up as the quarterback in the wildcat formation and just let him run. After his performance in the Under Armour game, he moved into the top 50 in Rivals.com national rankings.
“The rating system, I think it can hurt a kid’s confidence,” Jones said. “What it all boils down to is on-field play. And where you’re from, honestly. So, being from Minnesota, ranked 44th, I just feel like I put in a lot of hard work, and now it paid off.”
Minnesota’s ‘bad rap’
Mal Scanlan started coaching high school football in Minnesota in 1966, and he said Darrell Thompson is, by far, the state’s best running back that he’s seen. Scanlan was coaching at Cretin-Derham Hall in 1985, when his team faced Thompson’s Rochester John Marshall squad.
“Thompson also ran track, so I told our kids, ‘He’s a track kid. Just slap him around a couple times.’
“He had one of those runs where he ran around the end and ran over one of our best linebackers and never stopped. That linebacker, a great kid, came over to the sideline and said, ‘Evidently they run track a little different at John Marshall.’ ”
Thompson could have named his school. Nebraska, a powerhouse of that era, wanted him badly. He had offers from UCLA and Ohio State as well. But he picked the Gophers and became the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“I don’t know that we’ve seen anyone quite like him in the state of Minnesota,” Scanlan said. “He had the size, he had the speed. I would say he’s the best I’ve seen.”
Scanlan also enjoyed watching McCullough, Tapeh and Powers-Neal. Marion Barber III actually went on to have more success professionally, but he didn’t generate nearly the same buzz when he was a senior at Wayzata. Glen Mason, Gophers coach at the time, often said he almost didn’t give Barber a scholarship, but Barber rushed for 3,276 yards in three seasons.
After 2001, when Barber and Powers-Neal graduated, Minnesota did not see a high school running back of that caliber come along until Jones. The state produced some heavily recruited receivers during that stretch, including Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), Bryce McNeal (Clemson) and James Onwualu (Notre Dame), but there was a running back void.
“I think Minnesota gets a bad rap,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think Minnesota is looked at as a football state. But now, I honestly believe the doors to Minnesota are knocked down, to where the scouts can recognize the talent and the talent is validated.”
Jones’ performance in the Under Armour Game certainly didn’t hurt.
“The nation found out what we already knew,” Jenkins said.