GAINESVILLE — Florida Gators running back Matt Jones (Armwood) was mostly miserable last season.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior from Seffner missed considerable time with a viral infection, rushed back for the second game of the season and then injured his knee a few weeks later.
He didn’t think things could get any worse.
But with Jones watching from the sideline, the Gators ended the year with seven consecutive losses and recorded the program’s first losing season since 1979.
“Watching the team just kind of falling apart, that was the toughest thing,” he said.
Jones is healthy now and eager to prove last year was a fluke — for himself and Florida.
“I think we’re going to overcome that 4-8 (record),” Jones said. “We don’t have 4-8 in our head no more. This team is kind of rebuilding. We’re stacked at every position.”
Especially at running back.
With Jones, sophomore Kelvin Taylor, fifth-year senior Mack Brown and versatile freshman Brandon Powell, the Gators have their most backfield depth in years. Throw in redshirt freshman Adam Lane and former walk-on Mark Herndon, and Florida could be poised to run — literally — back into contention in the SEC’s Eastern Division.
Sure, quarterback Jeff Driskel and the team’s revamped offensive line probably will be more important in determining Florida’s success this season. But being able to run the ball consistently has proven to be a championship model for the Gators.
And Jones could be the key to making it work.
He has the size to pick up tough yards between the tackles, the speed to get to the edge and go the distance, and the receiver skills to be a threat in the passing game.
“He’s a 230-pound back that, about midway through the third and fourth quarter, you get tired of hitting,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s got extremely good hands, he’s very good at protection, very smart player. ... He looks really good. He’s healthy, he’s in shape, he’s excited, itching to get started.”
Jones felt the same way last season.
He spent a week in the hospital and more than a month recovering from a viral infection that sapped his strength and energy and took off more than 10 pounds. Jones worked his way back on the field in time to play at Miami, but averaged 2.6 yards a carry and fumbled in a loss to the Hurricanes.
He fumbled again the following week against Tennessee, prompting Muschamp to open up the job. Jones responded with a 176-yard performance at Kentucky, solidifying his spot atop the depth chart.
But just as he was starting to fully recover and find his rhythm, he tore meniscus in his left knee in early October.
“Last year was very difficult just overcoming my sickness and just going into the season and getting hurt,” said Jones, who finished with 339 yards rushing and two touchdowns. “I just feel like I’m a step ahead of my game this year. I’m just glad I’m here in camp with my boys.”
He’s hardly just one of the guys in practice, though.
Jones has adjusted well to new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s spread scheme. As much havoc as Jones can cause on zone, counter and power plays, he’s proven to be equally adept in the passing game.
“I love the offense,” Jones said. “I love what Roper’s doing with the running backs, giving us a chance we can really catch the ball. That will really up our stock just trying to go to the next level. So I feel good about catching the ball.”
And he’s no longer miserable.
“Definitely last year we lost a lot of confidence just because everything was going downhill,” he said. “With this new offense, we definitely feel confident because every time we go against the defense we move the ball and everybody’s feeling comfortable. We’re spreading the ball, nobody is being selfish.”