If Will Muschamp did one thing last season, it was expressing clearly the kind of identity his offense would take on.
After pounding the ball mercilessly against Bowling Green, and again against Texas A&M, Muschamp made it clear through both his words and actions that Florida would run the ball at every possible chance.
However, the first clue concerning Florida’s forthcoming run-game prowess was offered up on a sticky summer day in Birmingham, Ala. Before the season’s onset, Florida’s seldom-used and rising senior running back, Mike Gillislee, took to the microphone in a sharp new suit at the Wynfrey Hotel for SEC Media Days.
The quiet ball carrier had sat in silence along Florida’s bench for the previous three years of his career, perhaps oblivious to the shouts from fans questioning why he wasn’t on the field more.
With the Gators waving goodbye to their speedy, but slight tailback tandem from the year before, Gillislee had automatically been pushed to the forefront of the depth chart. Though he flashed potential in his limited spurts of action, many were taken aback when the usually reserved ball carrier made a boastful proclamation on the Wynfrey dais.
“My goal is to take my team and put them on my back. Get 1500 yards and 24 touchdowns,” Gillislee stated shamelessly.
Although he came up short of his stated goal, Gillislee didn’t disappoint with his performance, posting 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns. In the process, he became Florida’s first 1,000 yard-rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
As quickly as he entered the conscious of Florida fans though, Gillislee was forced to leave Gainesville, his eligibility exhausted.
However, when fans look on to see the next player unflinchingly launching himself into the teeth of SEC defensive lines this fall, more than likely, they’ll find sophomore Matt Jones fearlessly toting the rock.
Jones had a solid freshman campaign, running for 275 yards and three touchdowns, while taking a backseat to the surging Gillislee. At 6-foot-2 and 226 pounds, it can be argued that Jones was crafted precisely for Muschamp’s downhill, relentless running game.
During the short window of open practices which Muschamp allowed last weekend, Jones was a standout, showing the throng of curious spectators that Florida’s running attack could be just as potent as it was last season. Ask any in attendance, and the overwhelming belief would be that Jones is a surefire starter heading into next season.
One person who isn’t so sure though, is Jones himself.
“I don’t think I’m the guy now,” Jones said. “I think I still have a lot of work to do in this offseason. Filling Gilly’s shoes is a lot of pressure, though. Whoever wins the battle, it’s going to be hard to fill his shoes.”
The Gators are the beneficiaries of a strong stable of backs, boasting redshirt junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor in addition to Jones. Another freshman, Adam Lane, is expected to arrive at UF in the summer.
While some at this time would simply look at Brown and Taylor as compliments, Jones views his backfield mates as competition, albeit of the friendly variety.
“Both are talented backs,” Jones said. “We all competing hard, we going hard in the film room … Everything we do we going hard in … Just a great backfield.”
Jones said both Brown and Taylor have their own distinctive traits, with Brown being a “power” runner, and Taylor possessing good vision along with a penchant for making shifty moves.
Those moves Taylor easily makes are undoubtedly the product of a genetic gift, handed down from his father and former Florida great, Fred.
“Yeah I remember watching his dad,” Jones said. “(Kelvin) definitely does (remind him of Fred). Same running style, same everything … He knows he kind of runs like him.”
As for his own running style, Jones was criticized by Muschamp early last season for doing too much dancing before hitting the hole. With such a powerful build, Jones has the frame to not only take, but dole out a pounding to defenders.
While some freshmen are unable to accept constructive criticism, Jones immediately took his coach’s words to heart — even if they came in an “aggressive” manner.
“It definitely meant a lot,” Jones said of Muschamp’s comments. “Coming from high school we used to just run around everybody and go around blocks and not hit the hole. When I got here I thought it was going to be the same way, but getting it from the head coach meant a lot for me.
“I knew I had to hit it between the tackles and run angry … I definitely needed to hear and it definitely made my game better.”
One co-signer to Jones’ ability came in the form of the menacing Dominique Easley, who lines up against Jones daily while on defense. Easley is usually short on words, but his brief description of Jones gets right to the point.
“Big, fast, strong and that boy can run the rock,” Easley said. “He’s a man. That’s all. He’s a man about his business.”
If those words weren’t stirring enough for Florida fans, when asked if there would be any sort of drop-off with Gillislee’s departure, Easley handed over this offering:
“It’s a step-up.”
Whether Easley’s complimentary statements prove to be prophetic or not remain to be seen. But there’s little doubt Jones has what it takes to be a serious threat in nearly every phase of the Florida offense, as the athletic specimen has also proven to be proficient in the passing game: “I definitely love catching the ball out the backfield,” Jones added.
Despite having a number of differences, Florida’s new running back shares a number of commonalities with it’s old one. Included, is his lack of hesitation in stating goals.
As he sat on a low wooden bench in Gainesville, sporting a Sugar Bowl hoodie with his dreadlocks pulled back tight, Jones let loose his own personal goals for this season … if he starts of course.
“I definitely got some goals,” Jones said. “If I am the starting running back, I want to go over 1,000 yards … I want to go over 10 TD’s.
“Just like Mike had goals, I got goals right behind him.”