If Florida Gators sophomore running back Matt Jones did not look like his normal self when he started against Miami on Sept. 7, there is a good reason for that.
Jones, speaking Monday for the first time since being diagnosed with a serious viral infection during fall camp, said he was “definitely not” comfortable when he took the field for the first time two weeks ago.
“Getting back into the game, my first game back I was a little nervous and not 100 percent running-wise,” he explained. “I wasn’t really trusting myself.”
It was evident.
Florida opened the game on offense and Jones – after rushing for nine yards on his first carry and no gain on his second – fumbled the football just past midfield.
Already questioning whether he should be on the field, the miscue put him into a worse place mentally.
“I took it bad. I was taking it bad. I felt I wasn’t ready to come back, thought I wasn’t going to be back. My coaches told me to calm down, trust myself,” he said.
The day did not get much better statistically for Jones, who finished with just 47 yards on 18 carries, but he certainly felt a positive change in the second half.
“Through the third and fourth quarter, I started feeling comfortable. I almost popped one. I started feeling my cuts,” he said.
Jones noted that he was simply not prepared for the physicality of the game – “my body wasn’t ready for the hits and stuff like that” – which makes sense considering he lost 10-12 pounds while dealing with a serious viral infection that forced him to miss a bunch of practice as well as the first game of the season.
Though he described the illness a normal stomach virus, Jones said Monday that he was in the hospital for 7-8 days. He was nauseous and unable to eat, vomited and dealt with persistent headaches.
“It was a big setback, knowing I put all that work in and I can’t go on the field now and I can’t do the things that I used to. And I know I’m going to have to work hard when I come back and stuff like that. It was hard. It was hard. Definitely hurt a little bit, too,” he said.
Jones did not begin practicing until the week of the Toledo game but was held out of action on Aug. 31 so his conditioning could return.
“Getting back on the field was kind of tough. I was fatigued a lot, trying to learn the playbook again, getting caught up with the game because the game is a little fast,” he explained. “It was definitely a tough process, but I think I handled it well.”
Jones may not have been fully prepared against UM but is also pleased that he got the chance to play and was able to shake some rust off before the Southeastern Conference slate begins for UF at home on Sept. 21 against Tennessee.
“I think it was a good thing for me to come back against Miami, get used to the game. I needed to feel the hits and how the speed of the game changed and stuff like that. I’m definitely glad that I came back,” he said.
Still two pounds away from his normal playing weight of 226, Jones said he feels “regular” these days. “I feel the way I felt like in the spring right now, moving around, catching the ball, protecting-wise, knowing everything I need to know.”
He started feeling normal again during practice last Monday and is now able to work on his cuts and bend like he had been prior to the illness.
“I think he had a really good off week,” said head coach Will Muschamp. “I think he worked extremely hard. … I feel good about where he is right now.”
Now over his health impediment, Jones can concentrate on a new season. He hopes he can make a big impact for the Gators as the workhorse running back that he was billed to be throughout the offseason.
“I definitely have big expectations. I want to take the team on my back now that I’m back and I know how the game feels now. I have big expectations just going into this game. I need to run harder and trust myself and put the O-line first and trust [Jeff] Driskel and stuff like that,” he said.
Added Jones: “I feel back to where I was during the spring. Right now, I think I feel a little bit better. I’ll be ready all through the SEC.”
Photo Credit: Associated Press