MINNEAPOLIS — Jeff Jones may be a running back, but the Minneapolis Washburn standout sees the recruiting process through the eyes of a quarterback.
Just like a quarterback leading his wide receiver and throwing to a spot ahead of his target, it’s not so much where a program is currently at when the commitment to a school is made. It’s where that program will be in the future.
For that reason, the state’s top running back decided to stay home at play football at the University of Minnesota. Jones announced his decision Wednesday morning in his high school gym as part of National Signing Day.
Jones believes the future is bright for coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers, and he’ll now be a part of it.
"If you look at his track record, everywhere he went, he’s won," Jones said of Kill. "You look at the Minnesota program and you can see where they’re going to be in the future. They’re going to be a lot better than they are now and what they have been in the past."
If that proves true, Jones could be a big reason why. The 6-foot, 190-pound running back was ranked as a four-star recruit by Scout.com, which also pegs Jones as the No. 12 running back in the entire nation. Jones is easily the highest-profile talent in Kill’s 2014 recruiting class. He was the co-MVP of the UnderArmour All-America Game last month and was also named Mr. Football in the state of Minnesota.
As Kill enters his fourth season as the Gophers’ coach, he continues to show he can retain some of the state’s top high school talent. As far as position players go, there was no bigger name in Minnesota this year than Jones.
The Gophers recruited Jones from the early stages of the process, tracking him throughout his years at Washburn. Minnesota was the first school to offer Jones, and that offer was followed by ones from Wisconsin and Michigan State. Along the way, Jones also picked up offers from schools such as Iowa, Florida and Michigan, but he gave a verbal commitment to the Gophers last February.
Despite talks of Jones possibly re-opening his recruiting process, he held true to his word and will now play his college football in the same city he grew up in. Jones’ high school coach, Giovan Jenkins, first heard buzz about the talented running back when he was in sixth grade. As an eighth grader, Jones was starting on the freshman team. He went on to start on varsity as a freshman and rushed his way to a Division I scholarship at Minnesota.
"Right away, he showed us that he could handle this level. I think the University of Minnesota noticed as well," Jenkins said. "He’s explosive. His first two steps are top speed. He’s not the fastest kid, but because his first two steps are top speed, his explosion is second to none. His vision and his ability to compete and drive and will to compete are like no other."
That competitiveness is not unique to the football field for Jones. When asked what he enjoys doing when he’s not playing football, he responds with a simple one-word answer: basketball.
Jones is currently starring for the Washburn basketball team and said he once had dreams of being a big-time basketball player. But when Jones stopped growing by the time he reached six feet, he realized that football might be his ticket to college.
With Jones heading to Minnesota, he follows in the footsteps of defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, another former two-sport star from Washburn who chose the Gophers. Hageman made a name for himself during his senior season in 2013 and could be a first-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. While Washburn has produced several Division I athletes, Hageman has so far been the most well-known among them.
Jones hopes to follow Hageman’s lead and be a key contributor for the hometown Gophers. During the recruiting process, he and Hageman talked about what to expect if Jones chose Minnesota.
"He liked it there. He said coach Kill helped him out a lot," Jones said. "That staff over there, they took him under their wing and helped change some things around for him."
Hageman’s background became well-documented during his time at Minnesota. After transitioning from foster home to foster home, Hageman and his brother were eventually adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle. Jones, too, has had an unusual home situation during his high school career. After his father was incarcerated several years ago, Jones moved in with his grandparents, with whom he still lives.
Jenkins sees the positive influence Jones’ grandparents have made on him over the years.
"He doesn’t come off as too arrogant or whatnot. He’s a great kid," Jenkins said. "His grandparents did a great job raising the young man when they took him in for those five or six years, however many years it was. He holds a lot of their values close to him. I hear him saying a lot of stuff that kids just don’t say, but it comes from the grandfather."
Jones now joins a Gophers team that already has some depth at running back. Junior David Cobb emerged as the starter during the 2013 season, while Minnesota also has running backs Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards. Playing time will be no means be guaranteed for Jones as a freshman, even if he is a highly touted recruit.
The Washburn star knows he has to earn his snaps, and he has no problem with that.
"As a coach, you lose your job if you don’t put the best players on the field," Jones said. "If I’m one of the best players, then of course you’re going to expect to play. But if not, I guess I’m going to have to wait my turn."