Freshman Jones holds importance in Minnesota push for top spot in West

Inevitably, conversations this spring about 2015 in the Big Ten boiled down to a few topics.

Ohio State's brewing quarterback drama topped the list, followed by the potential impact of three new head coaches in the league -- notably Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.

Here's a question I heard a few times that continues spin in my head as summer grows near: Who's the favorite to win the West? The easy answer is to pick Wisconsin or Nebraska, the best-resourced, most well-positioned programs.

But I saw the Badgers and Huskers up close this spring, and neither team has convinced me yet that they possesses the firepower to receive the label of division favorite in the first season after a coaching change.

So how about Minnesota? The Gophers get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home next fall. If not for the most difficult crossover schedule (Michigan, at Ohio State) of the top three in the West, Jerry Kill's team might be the popular choice of the summer predictions. And Minnesota still may get my vote.

The obvious challenge for the Gophers is to replace the production of running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams. Watching Williams land in the second round of the NFL draft Friday with the Ravens and Cobb on Saturday in the fifth round to the Titans only served as a reminder of the problem.

Jeff Jones offers a possible solution.

The redshirt freshman out of Minneapolis did not practice last fall while academically ineligible. Yet in his first workouts of the spring -- his first as a college player -- Jones wowed the Minnesota coaches with play-making skills.

While the speed with which he adjusted came as a surprise, Jones’ talent did not. He ranked as the top prospect in the state of Minnesota in the Class of 2014 and earned MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game after his senior season of high school.

But Minnesota has a crowded backfield that includes Rodrick Williams, Rodney Smith and Berkley Edwards, so the Gophers shifted Jones to receiver, working him in the slot and at outside spots. At 6-foot and 207 pounds, he responded well to the switch.

“He needs to play outside at receiver some,” Kill said, “because he can run and go get the football. I’m very pleased with where he’s at right now, a very football-smart kid.”

Expect to see Jones next season in a variety of roles, helping the Gophers cope with the loss of offensive weapons David Cobb and Maxx Williams. Minnesota lacks athletes like Jones at receiver, and teammates praised his route-running and physical play on the edge.

One way or another, he’ll get his hands on the football.

“He’s done a really, really, really good job of picking things up at tailback," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "He’s got good ball skills, so we decided before things got too far into it, we wanted to get him out on the perimeter as well.

"He could be a real weapon for us.”

And possibly, the missing link Minnesota needs in its bid to break through as the West looks ripe for a new favorite.