Sophomore tailback Matt Jones is ready to put No. 19 Florida on his back.
But he wasn’t prepared to do so just two weeks ago.
Jones — returning from a serious viral infection that derailed a promising offseason — struggled in his 2013 debut against Miami on Sept. 7.
The sophomore was visibly rusty and looked nothing like UF’s projected workhorse who ran wild against Florida State last season.
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Jones rushed for just 47 yards on 18 carries against the Hurricanes and had a critical fumble on Florida’s opening possession.
After missing all of training camp with what he called “a regular stomach virus,” the tailback admitted he wasn’t totally primed for action against the Hurricanes.
“I was a little nervous and not 100 percent running-wise,” Jones said. “I wasn’t really trusting myself.”
Jones spoke of doubts, acknowledging he was tentative, easily fatigued and “wasn’t ready for the hits.”
It didn’t go unnoticed.
“We could tell he wasn’t himself like on the sideline. The energy level wasn’t there like the usual energy level,” center Jonotthan Harrison said. “But we really appreciate the fact that he’s still going out there and giving it his all for the team.”
“It’d been awhile since he’d been out there,” fullback Hunter Joyer said. “He’s still getting better and still improving.”
Jones finished the 2012 season averaging 8.5 yards per carry over Florida’s final three games. He followed it up with a dynamite spring camp.
He appeared poised for a breakout season until he was forced to spend more than a week in the hospital with the mysterious illness, losing 10 to 12 pounds and going days without eating.
“I definitely don’t know what happened, they still don’t know what happened,” Jones said. “I just know I woke up throwing up and feeling nauseous.”
Despite his lackluster debut, Jones said he started to “feel regular” in the second half of the loss to Miami and had a great week of practice during Florida’s bye week.
“He had a really good week off. I think he worked extremely hard,” coach Will Muschamp said. “It was the first game for him.”
Said offensive coordinator Brent Pease: “He’s taken the majority of reps in practice and built up his endurance. I think he’s a lot further along to where he’s comfortable with what he’s doing and understanding the scheme. I think he’s much closer to what we need him to be.”
Although Jones was disappointed in his performance against the Canes, he’s glad he played and needed the experience for his confidence.
Now “100 percent” healthy, Jones said he’s “back.”
“I feel the way I felt in the spring — moving around, catching the ball, protection-wise and knowing everything I need to know.
“I definitely have big expectations,” he continued. “I want to take the team on my back now that I’m back.”