Jones tallying hits in pinch role at safety

Freshman Dominic Jones has started at safety since Brandon Owens was hurt.

David McCoy

Minnesota defensive back Dominic Jones wants people to look up to him.

But that’s awfully tough when he spends all week looking up at everyone else.

Five-foot-8-inch wide receiver Jakari Wallace is the only player on the Gophers’ roster listed as shorter than Jones, a 5-foot-9-inch true freshman.

But even that height is an obvious embellishment.

Jones recognizes the exaggeration, saying “quarters in his shoes” make up the difference.

But there is no measure to the difference he has made in just his first year at Minnesota.

“That’s what recruiting is all about,” Jones said. “I knew coming in as a freshman that I could help this team out, maybe not this year, but certainly next year. It just happened to be this year.”

The Gophers have looked to Jones to fill a lot of holes this season. From the first play, Jones was starting at cornerback and returning punts.

And after a hit by Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson on Oct. 1 caused a season-ending injury to strong safety Brandon Owens – possibly the defense’s best player – Jones was asked to slide over and take Owens’ place.

And Jones has already been setting an example.

“He’s probably our best tackler on defense right now,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “When I see him tackle I say, ‘That’s how you’re supposed to tackle, right there.’ His motor runs, and he’s a strong guy, and he’s been durable – a smart guy and a good leader. He’s going to be a good football player around here for the next three years, whether it be at safety, strong safety or corner.”

Jones said he spent extra time meeting with Owens and free safety John Pawielski to go over film and get mentally prepared for the switch. Jones played some safety his last two years of high school, and he had little trouble adjusting.

In his first start at strong safety the following week at Michigan, Jones rose to the occasion, recording a career-high six tackles in Minnesota’s 23-20 win.

Saturday against Ohio State, the Columbus, Ohio, native matched his career-high with another six tackles.

“My passion for every game is always there,” Jones said. “But there was a little more ‘umph’ into that game. And all the guys who were kind of riled up for the game have got to bring it to every game, not just one game.”

Jones’ attitude and ability have impressed Minnesota’s veterans. Asked if he was surprised at Jones’ smooth transition to safety, Pawielski said it went even further than that.

“I was surprised that he played cornerback as well as he did,” Pawielski said. “But safety, there are more things you have to think about and worry about, but he’s played really well.”

But Jones’ rookie season hasn’t gone without its fair share of disappointments. After fumbling a punt against Michigan, Jones was relieved of his punt-returning duties in favor of wide receiver Logan Payne, who has now been the team’s punt-returner since the Wisconsin game Oct. 15.

“(Jones) dropped a couple, and we’ve always worked a couple guys out there,” Mason said. “I think the most important thing in punts is fielding. If the down’s over, you get the ball. Logan Payne was doing a better job handling the ball. That’s why I put him there.”

Jones moved to gunner when Payne took his place, upping his list of positions played in just his freshman season to four: cornerback, safety, punt returner and gunner. And he would do even more.

“Anything I can do with the time that I do have, I’m almost willing to do anything,” Jones said. “I mean, if they asked me to hold for them or kick a field goal, I’m going to try to do it.”

When searching for answers for Minnesota’s recent struggles defensively, many have pointed to the loss of Owens. Jones said he tries not to take it personally but just wants to try to make up for the team’s loss as much as he can.

Jones, who plans to major in criminology, said Owens’ injury has helped to put his own life and career goals in perspective.

“Football ain’t going to be here forever, so you need something to fall back on,” Jones said. “That’s what a lot of young people that are real talented don’t realize – that a career-ending injury can happen just like that and you’ll be left with just knowledge. And nobody can take that away.”

Jones is no Owens, at least not yet. For one, Owens is 5 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. For another, Owens had a knack for coming up with big plays.

But Jones is trying.

“I want to be that leader on and off the field,” Jones said. “I want to be the guy that everyone looks up to in that key situation to make a play, like Brandon (Owens). I want to be that guy.”