Gophers' Jones on fast track to recovery

When Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover learned receiver Marcus Jones had torn his ACL during a practice in late October, he began doing the math.

An ACL injury used to mean up to a year on the sideline. Although improvements in medicine and rehabilitation techniques had shortened the recovery time, Limegrover remained realistic about Jones' prognosis.

"It was like, 'OK, let's have him take this thing slow,'" Limegrover recalled. "'He'll be out through spring ball. Fortunately, he's a smart kid, so he'll be able to pick it back up in July.'

"Next thing you know, he's out here."

When Minnesota kicked off spring practice March 22 -- less than five months after the injury -- Jones was in uniform on the field. His rapid recovery surprised just about everybody, including himself.

The sophomore wide receiver is cleared to participate in everything except full-contact scrimmages. Barring a setback, he'll get full clearance when Minnesota opens preseason camp in August.

"I didn't really think it would be this quick," Jones told ESPN.com, "but my trainers, especially head trainer Ed Lochrie, they told me I would come back, just as long as I did my rehab like I was supposed to. The harder you do your rehab, the quicker recovery you make.

"And I made a very quick recovery."

Jones had never missed a game in his athletic career until he sat out Minnesota's Oct. 29 win against Iowa, which took place just days after he suffered his injury while returning a kick in practice. The Wake Forest, N.C., native played through a sprained MCL in high school and some broken bones as a baseball player, but he'd never suffered a major injury until last fall. Before the ligament tear, Jones had shown big-play ability as a true freshman, averaging 15.8 yards per reception and 28.5 yards per kick return, including a 92-yard touchdown against Purdue.

He had some initial concerns with the injury, but team doctor J. Patrick Smith, who performed Jones' surgery, told him the recovery isn't as long as it used to be. When Jones began his rehab, he didn't put a timetable on anything.

"I just knew I didn't want to lose any speed or any strength," Jones said.

He hasn't lost a step this spring, at least according to his friends who play defense for the Gophers.

"They tell me I'm ready to get hit, that I need to stop faking it," Jones said. "I guess everybody's ready for me to get back, and I'm definitely ready to get back."

Looking at his recovery, it's hard to believe he was ever hurt in the first place.

Jones' presence this spring has felt like the bonus to Limegrover, who likens Jones to a playmaking recruit who enrolled early but also already has knowledge of the offense. Limegrover understands why Jones can't engage in contact until preseason practice, but the coach admits to getting greedy at times.

"He gets out there and starts doing seven-on-seven, running routes and moving around," Limegrover said. "As an offensive coordinator, we can use every playmaker we've got to complement [quarterback MarQueis Gray]. And I'm thinking to myself, 'Does he really need to not have contact? Can we get him in there in scrimmage situations?'

"That's how good he looked."

Minnesota needs more weapons to surround Gray, who will enter his second year as the starting quarterback and his second year in Limegrover's offense. The Gophers lose top wideout Da'Jon McKnight, who last season accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions (38.1 percent) and 760 of the team's 1,804 receiving yards (42.1 percent). McKnight had 35 more receptions and 640 more receiving yards than any other Minnesota player in 2011.

Jones, who played the first five games last season before celebrating his 18th birthday on Oct. 3, could help fill the production void. He's only 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds and is "not as fast as people want to believe," Limegrover said, but the young wideout has good knowledge of his responsibilities in the offense.

"He knows what routes to run and he knows what to do once he catches the football," Limegrover said. "Those are two things that right now are at a bit of a premium here. And the third part is Marcus is kind of like MarQueis' little brother. Those guys, they have a real connection."

Jones continues to work as a kick returner and also has practiced as a punt returner this spring, rotating with Troy Stoudermire at both spots. Jones, who will play wherever he's needed, enjoys competing with Stoudermire, the Big Ten-record holder in career kick return yards (3,102).

"I keep telling him I'm going to beat his record," Jones said. "I say it jokingly, but I hope I can really do it."

After what he has done in the past six months, don't bet against him.