Matt Jones gave Kentucky a preview of things to come last season in The Swamp when he ran the ball 10 times for 45 yards in mop-up duty during Florida’s 38-0 win over the Wildcats. A year later, Jones showed the Wildcats what he can do when he gets the ball in prime time, gaining 176 yards to help the Gators to a 24-7 win over Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington.
This is the Matt Jones Florida fans had been waiting for. He played in every game last year except against Georgia, but really didn’t come into his own until the second half of the FSU game when he carried the ball eight times for 81 yards and a game-icing score against the Seminoles. He added another touchdown in the Sugar Bowl and carried that momentum into the offseason.
Jones performed so well in the spring and separated himself so much from the other running backs that the coaching staff decided to hold him out of the Orange and Blue Debut. Jones appeared to be ready to take the reigns of Florida’s power running attack and he set his sights on the single season rushing record of 1,599 yards set by Emmitt Smith in 1989.
Then, as if it was an early omen for the season, Jones was dealt an unexpected hand. He woke up one morning feeling nauseous and vomiting and while he called the illness “a regular stomach virus,” it kept him in a hospital bed for more than a week and caused him to lose more than 10 pounds from his 226-pound frame.
“It was a big setback, knowing I put all that work in and I can’t go on the field now and can’t do the things I used to do.” Jones said. “I know I’m going to have to work hard when I come back. It was hard. It definitely hurt a little bit, too.”
Jones returned in the second game of the season against Miami although he was held to just 47 yards on 18 attempts. He didn’t look right. He was hesitant, didn’t show much in the way of vision and fumbled the ball on his third carry. He wasn’t ready to play and he knew it.
“Definitely not.” Jones said when asked if he felt 100% against Miami. “Getting back into the game, that was my first game back. I was a little nervous and not 100 percent running-wise. I wasn’t really trusting myself. But as it went, I went trusting myself a little bit.”
Jones looked marginally better against Tennessee but only carried the ball 12 times, giving way to Mack Brown who carried the load for the Gators down the stretch when they were running out the clock.
It seemed that Jones had gone from a clear-cut, distant No. 1 running back to playing second fiddle to Brown, on the wrong end of a time share in the backfield.
“I think we all knew that a little bit.” Will Muschamp said when asked if it was going to take Jones time to feel right again. “And you don’t ever want to admit it because Matt is a good football player and a guy we were really counting on coming into the season but when you miss four weeks, maybe a little over a month of exercise and activity, I don’t care how old you are, it’s going to shut your body down a little bit, it takes some time to respond, especially with some of the physicality, holding on to the ball and doing some of that stuff.”
But Jones hasn’t wavered. He hasn’t let the bad hand he was dealt this offseason effect his mentality or outlook. He continued grinding and working his way back to full health.
That was a healthy, confident Matt Jones who hammered away at Kentucky Saturday night.
“That’s what I was grinding for all offseason.” Jones said of his game on Saturday. “Definitely missing the [fall] camp got me off track but this is really what I was grinding for. Games like this.”
Jones carried the ball 28 times to Brown’s six, while out-gaining the Wildcats on his own, 196 (176 rushing, 20 receiving) to 173. It was a breakout game, but stats alone don’t do his game justice. Jones ran with a purpose and without trepidation when Tyler Murphy put the ball in his gut. It was was full-speed ahead, lower your shoulders and make the defender second guess himself the next time he saw No. 24 coming through the hole.
“I pulled Matt in Monday and I said, ‘man, you need to cut it loose and play.’” Muschamp said. “’You’re very tentative when you run it, you look like last year at the beginning of the year. If you make a mistake, put it on me, I don’t care, everybody else does. So just run the ball hard, run the ball hard, cut it loose and go play.’”
Jones must have taken those words to heart because he looked like the Matt Jones that slammed the door on the Seminoles in Tallahassee last season and not the tentative player who struggled against Miami. With a healthy tandem of Jones and Brown in the backfield the Gators have the guns to run the kind of offense that made them a title contender in 2012.
Whether it was his talk with Muschamp before the game or if it really is just time healing his body, this game was big for Jones mentally.
“It was definitely a big weight off my shoulders. I had so much pressure on me.” Jones said. “It was big for me today.”