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College football: Gophers celebrate rare nab of top-100 recruit

By Tim Leighton

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill finally snagged a golden recruit Wednesday.

Just seconds after apologizing to his grandparents and the state of Minnesota for taking so long to make up his mind, four-star Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones pulled a Gophers hat out of a bag, a sly move that triggered an eruption of applause at the student assembly and relief to a Gophers football staff that couldn’t afford to let the state’s top recruit get away.

Jones, Minnesota’s Mr. Football Award winner for the 2013 high school season, gave an oral commitment to the Gophers in March. But that commitment softened when he decided to take a look at other schools. Iowa State was his other finalist.

“I knew Minnesota was the right choice for me,” said Jones, who averaged 9.1 yards per carry and rushed for 1,523 yards last fall. “(Minnesota) runs the ball. They’re winning games. I wanted to come into a program that’s going to win.”

Jones, ranked the No. 5 running back in the country by 247 Sports, also had 493 receiving yards during his senior season. He scored 44 touchdowns last fall and finished his high school career with 4,668 yards and 92 touchdowns.

He said remaining true to his word was pivotal in his decision.

“I believe strongly in loyalty,” the 6-foot, 200-pounder said. “As a Minnesota kid that has grown up here, I wouldn’t feel right putting up stats for Michigan with Michigan across my chest.”

Jones first met Kill when he attended a Gophers football camp before his first year of high school.

“He always wanted to play at Minnesota,” Kill said. “It’s hard when other schools come and you have a lot of people in your ear. Deep down, he’s always wanted to play in his home state. He told me that when he was a freshman.”

Jones signed his letter of intent Wednesday morning before announcing his decision. Ranked as high as No. 44 nationally among all high school players, he is the first top-100 recruit to commit to the Gophers in more than a decade.

Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said in a video that Jones was a player the Gophers staff has targeted since Kill became Minnesota’s head coach more than three seasons ago.

“He’s a guy that could really be a difference-maker in our offense,” Limegrover said. “Being a hometown player within the state, he was a highly touted player that we put a lot of emphasis on. We’re very excited to have him joining us, for sure.”

Chanhassen’s Frank Ragnow and East Ridge’s JC Hassenauer, Minnesota’s other top recruits, decided to sign elsewhere. Ragnow signed with Arkansas and Hassenauer with Alabama. Both are offensive linemen.

National recruiting expert Tom Lemming said Jones is the best running back to come out of Minnesota since former Gophers and NFL standout Marion Barber III of Wayzata in 2001.

“He’s got good size, very good football speed, instincts and balance,” Lemming said. “He’s a premiere player.”

Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins said former Gopher defensive end Ra’Shede Hagemen, a former Washburn star, had a hand in Jones’ decision. “Ra’Shede has taken Jeff under his wing,” Jenkins said.

Kill said Hageman told Jones that “(Kill) will do anything to help him get (to the NFL) if you work hard for him.”

Seated alongside Jones during the announcement ceremony was his grandfather, Willie Jones.

“I’m bubbled over with joy,” Willie Jones said. “It has been a journey; I thank God that we’ve made this decision. I’ve to got to tell you that Coach Kill and I hit it off right away. He’s a good man. He has the best interests of these young men at heart, not only as players, but as people. I really like that. I think Jeff will thrive in a scene like that.”

The next order of business for Jones is to get qualified academically. He will take the ACT test for a third time Saturday.

“I’m not worried about it,” Kill said of Jones’ academic standing. “We’ve done our research.”

Marcus R. Fuller contributed to this report.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.