GatorZone.com Senior Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When you think about it, the expectations placed on Matt Jones earlier this month were completely unrealistic.
The Florida sophomore tailback started the game at Miami on Sept. 7 after missing all of preseason practice, plus another week of the regular season due to a viral infection that put him in the hospital for six days and sapped his body of 15 pounds.
There was just no way, even approaching his playing weight of 226 on that 6-foot-2 frame, that Jones was going to be the best -- and most physical -- football version of himself.
“Well, it just takes time,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “I think we all knew that a little bit, but you don’t ever want to admit it.”
Doing so was easier Saturday night after Jones trampled Kentucky for career-high 28 carries and 176 yards in a 24-7 victory at Commonwealth Stadium. Jones was the workhorse the coaching staff envisioned when they anointed the former Seffner Armwood last spring the workhorse to replace 2013 go-to back Mike Gillislee.
“Definitely, missing camp took me off track,” said Jones, who did the heavy lifting for an offense that outgained Kentucky on the ground 246-48. “This is what I was grinding for -- games like this.”
The kind running backs dream about. Where they get the ball over and over, finding their rhythm and meshing as one with the offensive line.
In the end, Jones had cranked out the 21st-best single-game rushing performance in UF history and most yards by a Gators running back since Ciatrik Faison gained 210 against Kentucky in the 2004 meeting at Gainesville.
He'd also outgained the entire UK offense (173 yards) by himself.
“It was good to him out there doing his thing; being back, being right,” senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. “Obviously, the first few games he wasn’t himself. It’s good to see him go out and run free.”
After missing the season opener against Toledo, Jones debuted at Miami and promptly fumbled on his third carry of the season, helping set the tone for a 21-16 loss, as the Gators turned the ball over five times against the Hurricanes.
“I was probably 70, maybe 80 percent,” Jones said.
The UM game was followed by a bye week, which gave Jones more recovery time heading into last week’s Tennessee game. He fumbled in that one, too.
Jones, who as a true freshman averaged 5.3 yards per carry, came into Saturday’s game with 96 yards on 30 attempts in his first games -- just 3.2 a pop.
On Monday, Muschamp called Jones into his office and told him to “cut it loose,” quit running tentatively like he did his first few games as a freshman and forget about making mistakes.
“I was kind of timid and thinking too much,” Jones agreed. “He said to turn it loose and, in effect, that’s what I did.”
Against the Wildcats, Jones had just 12 yards through his first six rushes, but one of them was a 2-yard touchdown to cap a 13-play, 93-yard drive to start the game.
His seventh carry went for 67 yards.
“You can just see that’s he’s finally into a rhythm,” UF running backs coach Brian White said. “He missed all of training camp, and you don’t realize how important those aches and pains really are in terms of preparing you for a season. We lose sight of that as coaches, but that's a lot of reps and a lot muscle memory that he didn’t get in camp.”
Clearly, those elements are returning, as is Jones pounding the ball, finishing runs and breaking tackles. It’s a combination that served first-time starting quarterback Tyler Murphy well against the Wildcats and should suit the Gators nicely as the season progresses.
But Jones needed Saturday night.
“This is a weight off my shoulders,” he said. “This was big for me.”