Running back Matt Jones is the first of two outstanding players to don number 24 for the Gators. Jones has been through his fair share of trials and tribulations. But this season, he’s refocused, healthy, and looking good by all indications for a rebound season after last year’s health concerns.
Hailing from powerhouse Armwood High School in Seffner, FL, Jones had a nice career for the Hawks. In his junior season, he rushed for 1,438 yards and 26 touchdowns. That season drew a lot of attention from major college programs, including Florida. On Valentine’s Day of his junior year, Jones decided to end the recruiting process and choose Florida, despite drawing heavy interest from the nation’s elite. That summer, he faced his first speed bump.
“I chose the University of Florida because I love the coaching staff and I love some of the players on the team. Gator country felt like home to me,” Jones said. “I truly believe that I will rock the Gator Nation. By getting this commitment behind me now, I can give all my attention to my academics and football. I’m a Gator for life,” he said. “I’m not taking any other visits.” – Matt Jones to the Gainesville Sun
Jones decided not to take any more official visits despite the heavy interest and remained committed to school, football, and Florida throughout his senior year. But in the summer of 2011, Jones tore the meniscus in his right knee, forcing him to miss the beginning of his senior campaign. Despite the injury, Jones still put up good numbers. In 11 games, he rushed for 896 yards at 6.5 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns as well as caught nine balls for 197 yards and three TDs. The Hawks also had success on the field, despite Jones’ absence. Armwood finished a perfect 15-0 season and claimed FHSAA Class 6A state title en route to a No. 2 national ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50 and third in the USA TODAY Super 25 rankings. Jones’ season also earned him a Florida-Times Union Super 75 selection and honorable mention All-State honors.
The knee injury hurt Jones a little bit when it came to his recruiting rankings. He ended up signing with the Gators as a four-star prospect, ranked as the 12th athlete, 25th-ranked player in Florida, and 157th overall in the 2012 recruiting class, according to 247Sports composite ratings. Jones’ unique blend of size and speed made him a most-wanted commodity. He chose UF over Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, and Miami, among over 30 offers. At 6-3, 230 pounds with 4.6 40 speed, he was the type of back every team in the SEC wanted. With the size and strength to run through tackles and the speed to separate himself from the defense, Jones was the back Florida had been missing since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. Will Muschamp did what Urban Meyer could never do: Get an every down, big-time running back to sign with Florida.
In his freshman season with the Gators, Jones ended up with appearances in every single game except the matchup with Georgia. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry as he rushed for 275 yards and three touchdowns on 52 carries and added three catches for 10 yards. He got his first and only start of the season against Tenneessee, where he had five carries for nine yards. Jones finished the year strong and firmly as Florida’s starting running back as he rushed for 146 yards and a TD on just 16 carries against Jacksonville State and Florida State, good enough for a 19.1 ypc average. His lasting impression may be this run to seal the game at FSU, where his quickness and agility are on full display.
Expectations were high for Jones leading up into his second season at Florida. He was named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List for the nation’s top RB and the media chose him as Preseason All-SEC Third Team. But a viral infection sidelined him for most of fall camp and the opening game against Toledo. It took a couple of games for Jones to put back on some weight and get back to playing condition, but when he did, Jones impressed. Against Kentucky, he rushed for 176 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries and caught three more balls for 20 yards. His 176 yards were the most since Fason also against Kentucky in 2004 and the most on the road since Fason’s 190 at South Carolina in 2003. His season looked to be turning around until the LSU game. After a promising start with four carries for 17 yards, Jones tore his meniscus once again, this time in his right knee, on Florida’s first offensive series. He underwent surgery and missed the rest of the season. As a result, highly touted freshman RB Kelvin Taylor took over the starting role and hasn’t looked back.
The injury was worse than Jones and Muschamp suspected. He ended up suffering a radial tear of the meniscus, which resulted in a full tear, a second surgery, and Jones to miss all of spring practice. There were questions all summer about if the injury was worse than expected and when he would see the field again. Those questions were answered at UF Media Day on Sunday, as Muschamp said Jones is in good health and determined to get back on the football field. That’s good news for Gator fans as he’ll be looked upon to share most of the load with Taylor. It shouldn’t be understated that Muschamp also said Jones looked to block and catch the best out of the entire deep, talented group of running backs.
It remains to be seen how Jones will bounce back from all of the injuries and setbacks he’s faced in the past year or so. He’ll also most likely have to deal with losing the starting job to Taylor. But if his past experience is any indication, Jones will be just fine. He’s determined to make an impact on the gridiron and do whatever it takes to help the Gators win. And from first reports from the practice fields, he sounds like he might be back to his old self. Even though he may be overlooked, Matt Jones has all the tools and talent to be Florida’s next 1,000 yard rusher.