When Florida Gators running back Mike Gillislee (Florida’s first 1,000 yard rusher since 2004) graduated in the spring, it seemed there would be nothing to worry about, because it was clear who his heir apparent was at the position.
Despite the arrival of highly touted freshman Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane, it was always Matt Jones’ job to lose. Jones served as Gillislee’s backup during his freshman season in 2012 and put up 275 yards and three touchdowns, including eight carries for 81 yards and one touchdown against hated rival Florida State. At 6-foot-2, 226 pounds he has the mix of size, speed and power that set up perfectly to be Florida’s next 1,000-yard rusher and overall workhorse.
However, in early August Jones was diagnosed with a viral infection that kept him out for much of fall camp. In his absence redshirt junior Mack Brown stepped up and earned the right to start while Jones got healthy. His recovery was slower than expected and after finally getting back on the field for the Gators’ second game of the season against the Miami Hurricanes it was clear he was still a bit rusty, fumbling on the Gators’ opening drive.
The next game against the Tennessee Volunteers didn’t go so well either, as he fumbled for the second time in as many games. Meanwhile, Brown had twice as many rushing attempts as Jones in that game and afterward head coach Will Muschamp said the Gators would ride the “hot hand” at running back the rest of the way. Needless to say, the outlook did not look good for Jones heading into the game against the Kentucky Wildcats.
But, against the Wildcats he came out looking like the Matt Jones we expected to see all along. He rushed for a career-high 176 yards on 28 carries. He ran strong up the middle, showed he had enough speed to bounce it to the outside and that he could be a workhorse that can tote the rock 20-plus times a game if need be.
Jones’ breakout performance could not have come at a better time, with Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy making the first start of his career. Jones’ strong play took much of the pressure off of Murphy. Because the running game was so effective the quarterback was never put into a tough situation where he had to make a play.
Jones was expected to be the Gators’ featured running back this season, and after his performance Saturday, he finally showed that he was the right man for the job all along.