Spend five minutes with Matt Jones and it’s clear he is not a typical true freshman. He’s more mature than most, physically and mentally. He’s 19, but looks and acts like man.
Jones, the heir to the Florida Gators’ running back throne, is wise beyond his years because he is more than a simple student-athlete.
He’s also a father to a beautiful one-year-old girl named Aniyah.
“My daughter definitely changed my life,” Jones said after Florida’s 33-23 loss against Louisville in Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl. “I had to mature up fast to take care of her — to be the father she deserves.”
His daughter is the driving force behind Jones’ motivation to be the best he can be, in football and in life.
“Now that I’ve got her, she means everything to me,” Jones said. “I try to do everything for her. I know I have got to be mature as a father. It’s like a job to me. If I don’t eat, she don’t eat, so it just goes like that.”
Jones and his high school sweetheart initially lived together after Aniyah was born. That changed when Jones moved to Gainesville this past summer while his girlfriend is “back home taking care” of their daughter.
As often as possible, Jones treks down to the Tampa area to see his family. He played high school football at Seffner (Fla.) Armwood.
Even when Jones is away, his daughter is on his mind as he displayed by this tweet from the New Orleans Hilton hotel on the morning of Jan. 2 — game day for the Sugar Bowl. That night, he scored the Gators’ first touchdown on a fake field goal out of the “swinging gate” formation.
“Woke Up With My Daughter On My Mind.. I Heard Her Voice!! Dada Go Go!! Gimme Kiss..!!” Jones tweeted from his @mattjonesrb account.
Jones’ maturity will be beneficial as he switches from rookie to veteran this offseason. Along with being a father, Jones said he matured a lot simply from watching his teammates. He also learned a lot about leadership from all of the seniors, especially running back Mike Gillislee, who led the team with 1,152 yards this season.
“Mike Gillislee is a great leader, on and off the field,” Jones said. “He’s not a selfish guy in anyway. He’s got a positive mindset and he’s just a great guy to be around. I just love being around him.”
Jones has been listed behind Mack Brown on the depth chart, but Jones took over as the unofficial No. 2 running back during the second half of the season after Brown suffered an injury.
“We talk a lot about next year,” Jones said of his friendship with Brown. “How we’re going to grind hard and work hard because we learned how to do that every day so much from Mike Gillislee. He’s passed that on to us and we hope to show the same great leadership that Mike has shown us.”
Along with Brown, Jones also will battle a pair of talented true freshman rushers for backfield touches in Adam Lane and Kelvin Taylor. He’s met both of them, of course, and even hosted Lane during his official visit to campus.
“We had fun hanging out and everything and I told him how it is,” Jones said. “He just asked me if he had a chance to play and I said ‘Definitely there’s a chance for everybody to play because the spot is open and everybody is competing for it.’
“It was great to get to talk a lot with him.”
To offer a glimpse into the kind of numbers Jones may put up as the lead back, just look at the past three games when he’s rushed 19 times for 164 yards and two touchdowns. That’s 8.6 yards per carry with the touchdowns coming against Florida State and Louisville.
Still, he believes he has a lot to prove — and improve.
“I just need to keep getting better at everything,” Jones said. “I need to stay working hard in the weight room with (UF strength and conditioning) coach (Jeff) Dillman and keep getting smarter by studying film. I also need to work on my hands, keeping a wide base and keeping my pads low, and I’ve got to work on my speed.
“I’ve got a lot to do between now and next season and I’m just going to stay focused on doing that.”
Jones started his career off on the right foot — literally, planting off his right foot after receiving the handoff — on his first career carry as he slid away from tacklers for an 18-yard scamper in the season opener against Bowling Green.
“My first game in I was kind of timid,” Jones said. “Once I got used to it and relaxed, I ran the ball well.”
Despite the early success, Jones remains humble. That was evident after the game when questions included phrases like “knowing this is your job to lose” and things along those lines.
“I don’t feel like it’s my job yet (to lose),” Jones said. “I still have a lot of work to do during the spring and definitely during camp. I’ve got to work hard in the weight room and keep that mojo going.”
Now, that’s a mature answer, especially for a 19-year-old true freshman.