Matt Jones was supposed to be Florida’s bell-cow last season.
The tailback, who rushed for 81 yards on just eight carries at No. 10 Florida State as a freshman in 2012, was teased as an all-conference talent and the explosive playmaker the Gators desperately lacked.
Instead, Jones’ 2013 season was a never-ending nightmare.
Finally healthy, the running back is eager to make his junior season a fantasy-filled comeback, starting Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
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“I’m anxious,” Jones said.
“Anxious to get back out there Saturday. Even when I walk past [the stadium] to morning class I look at the field. I can’t wait until the stands are filled up and stuff and ready to go.”
Last year was miserable for everyone on the Gators, but Jones was particularly crestfallen while watching UF’s seven-game losing streak from the sidelines.
The 235-pound tailback battled a serious viral infection during training camp, only to return 10 pounds lighter, tentative and less than 100 percent. After fumbling in back-to-back weeks to open the year, Jones rushed for a career-high 176 yards at Kentucky. Two weeks later, his sophomore season ended because of a torn meniscus sustained at LSU.
“It was a traumatizing year,” Jones said. “I look back on it all the time, and it’s just something I’m glad I recovered from. When I got sick, I was in the hospital for eight days just thinking about what if I can’t play anymore. It was a nightmare. … I wasn’t really ever 100 percent. The Kentucky game was just another game for me. I never really felt confident last year, and when I got hurt it was just a bad play, bad hit.”
Jones’ strength, speed and power have returned, and following an excellent training camp he reclaimed his starting job over sophomore tailback Kelvin Taylor. The two will split reps all season, but Jones was on the field to take the first carry before Florida’s weather-suspended opener against Idaho was canceled.
“He looks really good,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s healthy. He’s in shape. He’s excited, and he’s itching to get started.”
Jones was a standout at Armwood High, and he expects to excel in Kurt Roper’s spread offense, specifically as a receiver out of the backfield.
“This offense feels like home to me because I did it in high school, and I was very successful with it,” he said. “I feel like two steps ahead of my game. … It’s going to be a good one. I have a chip on my shoulder.”
Eastern Michigan (1-0) surrendered 210 yards on the ground in its opener, and last season the Eagles ranked 121st nationally in rushing defense (258.3 yards per game).
Jones is ready to go, and his coach is more than excited to have him back.
“He’s a 230-pound back that about midway through the third and fourth quarter you get tired of hitting,” Muschamp said. “He’s got extremely good hands, he’s very good at protection, very smart player, a guy that I thought had as good a spring, a spring ago, for a tailback that I’ve been around.”