Charlie Jones was known as one of the top return specialists in college football before he transferred from Iowa to Purdue this year.
It took only one game with the Boilermakers to prove that he's now more than a special teams sensation. Jones is making a case to be the game's best wide receiver, too.
Entering Saturday's matchup against the No. 21 Gophers, the sixth-year senior from Deerfield, Ill., leads FBS in receptions (41), is tied for first in touchdown catches (seven) and ranks third in receiving yards (533).
"He does everything really well," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "He's a fearless competitor, it just yells at you off the screen and you can see it."
Jones is among the early-season favorites to be crowned the nation's best wideout.
The 6-foot, 188-pound speedster wasn't one of the five Big Ten receivers on the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list. Despite being named 2021 Big Ten return specialist of the year last season with the Hawkeyes, Jones' career high was only three catches in a game while playing at Iowa and Buffalo in five years.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm's offense unleashed a monster. Jones shattered his career-best game in the season-opening 35-31 loss to Penn State with 12 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.
"I came here obviously for the offense," Jones said. "I'm liking what I'm seeing so far. … It was a good move."
Far from a one-game wonder, though, Jones followed his Boilermaker debut with gaudy numbers vs. Indiana State (nine catches for 133 yards and three TDs) and Syracuse (11 catches for 188 yards).
Despite the 28-26 loss to Purdue last week, Florida Atlantic was the first opponent to finally figure out how to slow down Jones. The Owls held him to 59 yards on nine catches, but Jones still hauled in two TDs from backup quarterback Austin Burton.
Burton got his first career start last week for the injured Aidan O'Connell, who isn't yet cleared to return Saturday against the Gophers. On his first drive against FAU, Burton connected on four passes to Jones, including on a 7-yard touchdown strike. He targeted Jones 11 times on the day.
The biggest play from Jones in the game was probably his 14-yard catch on fourth-and-7 in the fourth quarter, setting up the game-deciding score.
"Charlie's also my roommate, so he's been nagging on me pretty much the last couple of days to get him the ball," Burton joked after the win. "The way he performs week in and week out, it's impressive. It's just cool to watch him, and he's a stud."
The Gophers are second in the FBS in pass defense with only 126 yards allowed per game. Jones averages 133 yards receiving. Something has to give, but the Boilermakers also use their go-to receiver in the return game.
Brohm isn't afraid to utilize his playmakers any way possible going back to the days of former Purdue All-Americas David Bell and Rondale Moore.
"If they want to play football at the highest level," Brohm said, "that's how they're going to have to perform. I think he's adjusted."
How much a talented U secondary can limit Jones' impact Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium could be a major factor in keeping the Gophers undefeated.
But Fleck, an undersized receiver himself in college and the NFL, simply appreciates what kind of player Jones has been in his career at every stop: fearless.
"He plays way above how big he is," Fleck said. "Watching him as a punt returner you get to know his personality. He doesn't ever fair catch the ball, doesn't matter who is around, doesn't matter how high the hang time is, doesn't matter if the ball is short, long. He doesn't fair catch the ball. He's fearless — and he plays that way."