When he first arrived on campus three years ago, a tall, skinny and probably a little full of himself, A.J. Jones couldn’t understand why the Florida coaching staff made such a big deal about his weight. He was all of 170 pounds, which was plenty enough when he was one of the nation’s top prep linebackers at Tampa Middleton.
He admits he was somewhat of a hard sell. The coaches talked. He resisted.
“At first, when I got here I didn’t buy into it,” said Jones after the fourth-ranked Florida Gators finished their Sunday evening football practice. “I thought if you’re going to make plays, you’re going to make plays.”
A broken ankle when practice began in August of 2006 made him re-evaluate his situation. It forced him to take a redshirt during Florida’s national championship season. While buddies Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe, linebackers who were part of the same recruiting class, got to see the field and make minor contributions, Jones had to sit, watch and think.
“I wish I had been out there playing but at the same time it was a good learning experience,” said Jones, a third-year sophomore who starts at strong-side linebacker for a Florida defensive unit that leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense (11.6 points per game) and ranks fourth in total defense (289 yards per game).
When Jones decided to get with the program to add the necessary strength and muscle to compete, it meant being a part of strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti’s “Breakfast Club.” It also meant getting serious in the weight room.
It was a lifestyle transformation because Jones said all he did was “lift, eat and live right.”
He started gaining weight, enough that he played last year as a redshirt freshman somewhere between 202-205 pounds, but he still wasn’t strong enough or big enough to handle linemen or bring down running backs that often had him outweighed by 15-20 pounds.
So he had another sit down with the coaches to discuss what he needed to do. It meant more time in the weight room but also following a change in eating habits. Instead of three meals a day, he started eating 4-5 times per day.
“I eat what I want to eat but I have to consistently eat because I’ve got fast metabolism,” he said.
In the weight room he had to deal with Marotti constantly in his face and constantly pushing him to do more. There were no days off.
“He never let me pass a day without getting in my face, getting in my grill about going harder and staying on the weights and eating right,” said Jones.
Jones plays at a chiseled 222 pounds now, a full 52-pound gain since his freshman year. Although he’s gotten heavier, it hasn’t slowed him down even one step. He could run a 4.63 40 when he arrived on campus. He turns the 40 at a consistent 4.5 these days.
The added weight, strength and speed has begun to pay off because he’s becoming a dependable playmaker for a Florida defense that thrives on making big plays. Saturday against Georgia, the Florida defense shut down the number one offense in the SEC, holding the Bulldogs out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter when the game had long since been decided. Florida also forced four Georgia turnovers — three interceptions of quarterback Matt Stafford and a fumble from All-America running back Knowshon Moreno.
At 222 pounds, Jones can play a big role in this defense. It wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t bought into the Marotti strength program.
“Now I can see that your weight, your speed, all this training finally plays a part because you get bigger stronger, you get a chance to get the linemen off you,” he said. “You get a chance to be faster, go make plays. It does play a big role.”
The task for Florida’s defense this week will be to maintain its level of intensity against a Vanderbilt team that still has a chance to win the SEC East Division Championship. Florida (7-1, 5-1 SEC East) can eliminate the Commodores and clinch the SEC East title with a win in Saturday’s nationally televised game (8 p.m., Vanderbilt Stadium, ESPN2) in Nashville.
Jones said there won’t be any problem that the Gators will still have a celebration hangover from their 49-10 thrashing of Georgia.
“We move on from week to week,” he said. “We just know we have Vanderbilt this week so we have to prepare for them. We can’t be looking and dwelling in the past.”
Florida’s defense is playing at a much higher level than last season when the Gators had stretches when they couldn’t get opponents off the field. The Gators lost four games last year and in every one of the losses, defensive lapses contributed mightily to Florida’s demise.
This year, the defense has that added year of experience under its belt, but Jones says there is one other factor why the Gators are playing at such a high level.
“Right now our defense is based on do you trust the person next to you,” he said. “With me, I trust (middle linebacker Brandon) Spikes, I trust (weakside linebacker Dustin) Doe, I trust [everybody] up front and I trust the whole secondary. We’ve got so much trust now. Last year we were tired on the field. We’ve got a rotation now with everybody switching in and out of the game. Trust plays a big part of our defense this year.”
The Gators are one game away from clinching the SEC East championship and earning their second trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game in three years. This is a team that is starting to show its maturity in the way it prepares for every game and then in the way it executes on game day.
It’s a far cry from the Florida defense of 2007. Compared to this year’s group, you wouldn’t even recognize them as pretty much the same players. Of course, compared to last year and even the year before, you wouldn’t recognize A.J. Jones, either.