From his grandparents’ home on Oakland Avenue in south Minneapolis, Jeff Jones grew up less than six miles from TCF Bank Stadium. He was so close to realizing his dreams of starring for the Gophers, he could almost feel the turf beneath his feet.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Jones said shortly before graduating from Minneapolis Washburn in 2014. “We get talking about football, me and my friends, and I get caught up in a daydream.”
Jones was the Gophers’ highest touted recruit in at least a decade. But after falling behind academically this semester, he is transferring to Iowa Western Community College, coach Tracy Claeys told the Star Tribune on Wednesday.
“He and I talked, and I think it’s a good decision,” Claeys said.
Jones is expected to sign his new national letter of intent and enroll at the junior college next month. He’ll be able to go through spring practice with the Reivers and play next fall.
Once he earns his two-year degree, he can transfer back to any Division I school and still have two years of eligibility left.
“He’s a great kid — a great kid,” Claeys said. “He’s more than welcome to come back [to the Gophers]. He just had a tough semester academically, and it really wasn’t until this semester.”
Recruited as a consensus four-star running back, Jones narrowed his choices to Minnesota, Florida and Michigan. When he grabbed a Gophers hat on national signing day, a packed Washburn gymnasium erupted with cheers.
But Jones fell short of qualifying academically out of high school. Raised by his grandparents because of hardships at home with his parents, he was granted an initial eligibility waiver from the NCAA. This allowed him to use his scholarship and attend Minnesota, though he was academically ineligible at first.
Jones had to post at least a 2.5 grade-point average that first semester to gain his eligibility, and he did, which allowed him to compete in spring practice this year.
The Gophers switched Jones from running back to slot receiver — a move he supported. But after showing big promise in the spring, he had setbacks during the offseason, with former coach Jerry Kill later saying that Jones had dealt with migraines.
Jones, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, played in only three games this season, mostly on special teams, and did not record any statistics. His last game as a Gopher came in a Sept. 26 victory over Ohio.
Last month, Claeys revealed that Jones had switched positions again, this time to defensive back. The Gophers were clearly searching for a way to give Jones a spark.
“He hasn’t gotten to play as much,” Claeys said Wednesday. “He’s just had a hard time adjusting.”
Claeys said he encouraged Jones to return to running back at Iowa Western, something the Gophers were contemplating having Jones do next spring.
Rivals.com ranked Jones as the nation’s seventh-best running back in the class of 2014, and he was named co-MVP of the Under Armour All-America Game.
He was named Minnesota’s Mr. Football after rushing for 1,525 yards and scoring 42 touchdowns as a senior at Washburn. Former Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins, now a volunteer assistant with the Gophers, has been stressing academics to Jones for years.
“He did struggle academically this semester,” Jenkins said Wednesday via text. “And this is an attempt to get back on track academically while continuing to play football, and hopefully return to the U of M for his junior season!”
Iowa Western is a common landing place in the Midwest for talented players who for whatever reasons don’t land in a major-conference program. The Reivers won the junior college national title in 2012, were national runners-up last year and went 10-2 this year.
The Gophers have two players who transferred in from Iowa Western: linebacker Cody Poock and defensive back Ace Rogers.
Jones actually had planned to go to Iowa Western out of high school if he hadn’t been admitted to Minnesota. Now, he’ll go that route, and put his Division I dream on hold.