Jones a spark for Gophers

Marcus Jones has already returned a kick and a punt for a touchdown.

Minnesota defensive back Marcus Jones (15) returns a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in the Gophers’ 44-21 win over New Mexico State on Saturday.

Eric Miller, University of Minnesota

Minnesota defensive back Marcus Jones (15) returns a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in the Gophers’ 44-21 win over New Mexico State on Saturday.

Nate Gotlieb

Following the Gophers’ win over Nevada-Las Vegas in week one, a reporter asked junior cornerback and return specialist Marcus Jones about his speed.

Jones, who suffered two major knee injuries in as many years, made it clear: He doesn’t feel like he’s lost any.

Jones has proved that early this season with a special teams touchdown in each of the team’s first two games.

In the game against UNLV, he returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown.  And last Saturday in a win over New Mexico State, he returned a punt 65 yards for a score and earned Big Ten and NCAA special teams honors.

”We expect big plays [on special teams],” Jones said. “We’d like to get a big play on every return.”

This year, Jones will look to make it through his first full season with Minnesota. As a freshman, he appeared in the first seven games before tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament. And last year, he played 11 games before injuring the other ACL.

He said the second ACL injury was harder to overcome because he also tore his meniscus and was battling tendinitis throughout his rehab.

“Because I kind of knew the pain I would feel, I kind of still pushed through it,” Jones said.

Jones’ mother, Patricia Jones, said she made sure her son stayed positive throughout the recovery process. She lives in North Carolina and said it was hard not being able to check on him during his rehab, though he handled it well.

Stepping up

Jones was an unheralded recruit out of Wake Forest High School in Wake Forest, N.C.

He said he generated interest from smaller schools — including Elon University and Furman University — but didn’t have many Division I offers.

“Most people thought I was too small to play corner and didn’t think I would have much success at anything else,” he said.

Jones mostly played cornerback in high school but said he returned kicks as a senior, though only after his team’s primary return man sustained an ACL injury.

He graduated high school a semester early and practiced with the Gophers in spring 2011. He also switched from cornerback to wide receiver.

“I had never played receiver in my life,” Jones said. “I couldn’t catch that well. I didn’t know how to run routes. So it was definitely a slow process that I tried to pick up as fast as possible.”

After his second ACL injury last November, head coach Jerry Kill switched him back to cornerback. He’s recorded six tackles so far this season and has also handled kick and punt return duties.

After helping spark the team to a 2-0 start, the latter appears to be Jones’ specialty early this season,

Kill praised Jones after the UNLV game for his return touchdown, which catalyzed a 35-point second half for Minnesota.

“When we left the locker room, I said somebody has to step up and make a play,” Kill said. “It couldn’t have happened to a better kid.”