When Florida Gators sophomore running back Matt Jones was laid up in a hospital bed a number of weeks ago recovering from a serious viral infection, doubt crept into his mind as to whether he would ever get back to form this season.
It took him weeks of check-ups, blood tests and the like just to get on the practice field and more than two full weeks of practice until he saw game action.
That came against Miami on Sept. 7 when he averaged 2.6 yards per carry and coughed up a fumble. He played better two weeks later when Florida hosted Tennessee, scoring a touchdown and averaging 4.1 yards per touch, but fumbled for a second time in as many games.
Jones admitted after Saturday’s contest that he was not physically ready to play in either of those games. He kept telling himself that he was healthy and ready to go, but he was only about 70-80 percent at UM and a bit better than that against UT.
Though he still looked a step slow and did not have his normal burst during the Gators’ 24-7 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, Jones put together a career game he should remember for quite some time. He took a career-high 28 carries for a career-high 176 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per rush and scoring a touchdown, and also grabbed three receptions for 20 yards.
“I’d say I’m about 95 percent right now,” he said afterwards. “That’s what I grind[ed] for all offseason. Definitely missing camp kind of took me off track. But this is what I was really grinding for, just games like this.”
Jones believes he is just a couple steps away from being back to his normal self. “I’m still kind of iffy about some things,” he admitted. But he also thinks Saturday’s performance will go a long way to increasing his confidence. “It was definitely a big weight off my shoulders because I had so much pressure on me. … It was big for me.
Head coach Will Muschamp said after the game that he had a heart-to-heart meeting with Jones on Monday. He understood that Jones was still recovering from an illness that caused the player to lose nearly a dozen pounds in body weight but was more concerned with seeing his focus and mentality improve during games.
“When you miss four weeks, a month, 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 and holding onto the ball and doing that sort of stuff,” he explained.
“[I’m] just real proud of Matt. I pulled Matt in Monday. I said, ‘Man, you need to cut loose and play. You’re very tentative when you’re running. You look like last year at the beginning of the year. If you make a mistake, hell, put it on me. I don’t care. Everybody else does. Just run the ball hard. Run the ball hard, cut it loose and go play.’”
Jones pointed out that the meeting helped him immensely.
“The first two games I came back I was real timid and not thinking too much. He put me in his office Monday and said just turn it loose. Mistakes going to happen in this game, so just turn it loose. I took that to effect, and that’s what I did,” he said.
He ran so well, in fact, that Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease only called seven passing plays in the second half. One week after Muschamp announced that the team would go with the “hot hand” approach at running back, Jones only lost six total carries to redshirt junior back-up Mack Brown.
“With the surge we were getting up front, why throw it? I was just standing on the field and I’m just sitting there watching three and four yards every time we snap the ball,” Muschamp said. “Just continue to go with what’s working. We were getting very good surge up front. I through our guys did a great job getting a hat on a hat in the run game.”
Jones also credited the offensive line for his success on Saturday. “We kept it going, and we just dominated,” he said.
But he also had to address his 67-yard run that was nearly a 79-yard touchdown…had he not been tackled by redshirt junior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar on the way.
“I was downfield trying to cut back and go the other way and beat the corner out,” he said, “but Dunbar had come across and he was trying to block the corner, too. But I ain’t really see him out the corner of my eye and he kind of hit my leg.”
He may have missed out on a highlight, but Jones was not pouting after his career day. Instead, he was wondering what he will be able to do in order to get five percent healthier before next Saturday’s game.
Photo Credit: James Crisp/Associated Press