HOOVER Ala. – Last year at SEC media days, it was the soft-spoken Mike Gillislee who got media members buzzing when he said his goal for the season was to rush for 1,500-yards and 24 touchdowns. Gillislee had a productive season – becoming the first Gator running back to rush for 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 – but failed to meet those lofty expectations.
With Mike Gillislee now running the ball in orange and teal for the Miami Dolphins rather than orange and blue in Gainesville, another soft-spoken running back has taken his place – Matt Jones. Jones wasn’t at media days this week but he did send a message with Jon Halapio.
“I had a conversation with him this morning [Tuesday], he was telling me that he wanted to break the all-time rushing record at Florida,” Halapio said of Jones. “He said, help me do that and I’m going to help you out.”
Those are lofty goals for the sophomore tailback and first year starter to set for himself, but it is a goal that may be attainable according to his teammates. Halapio, Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley spoke to the media about Jones extensively on Tuesday in Hoover and one thing was very clear, Jones’ teammates are very confident in the young back.
“He’s taken on the responsibility of knowing his place,” Easley said of Jones. “He knows what he has to do and he knows that we’re looking for him to be that guy for us and he’s taken that on really well.”
When we asked Easley if he thought that Jones had the potential and ability to break Florida’s rushing record, he answered without a second thought. “Yeah, a man is able to do whatever they put their mind to.”
Jones finished his freshman campaign with 52 carries for 275 yards and three touchdowns. However, 162 of those yards – or 58% of his season total – came in the last three games of the season. Something clicked for Jones towards the end of the season, he began running north/south and hard. He is a physical runner who seemingly enjoys delivering punishment to defenders, a trait that is rare for offensive skill players.
“He’s big and can run and is fast and he wants to hit you before you hit him,” Easley said. “That’s a problem when the offensive player wants to hit you before you hit them. So I think he is going to put a little bit of fear in people.”
Despite finishing with an 11-2 record in 2012, the Gators were left with a sour taste in their mouth after the Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville. The players have used that game as motivation this offseason and are looking to take the next step in 2013 to return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. If they are going to do that, they will need a huge contribution from Jones.
“I feel like we are real close,” Halapio said. “Our running game is up there with other schools. Matt Jones is going to have a phenomenal year. I feel like we are real close to competing with the other top schools.”