Jones ready to carry the load

Florida head coach Will Muschamp wasn't shy with his criticism. Matt Jones was going through his freshman season at Florida and serving as the backup running back, but Muschamp wanted more than what Jones was producing on the field. Muschamp saw too much finesse and wanted the 6-2, 226-pound back to lower his pads and run with aggression. Once Jones did, the transition was impossible to miss.

The conversation didn't involve a suggestion from Will Muschamp. It was a demand. Jones was to change his running style, lose the passive nature of his moves with the ball and start getting downhill -- or he wouldn't play. There wasn't room for him to bounce the play outside every time he touched the ball. If he did that, he wouldn't be touching the ball very much.

The message was heard, loud and clear. Especially the loud part.

"It was sort of aggressive," Matt Jones recalled from the conversation with a laugh. "It was something I definitely needed to hear, and it definitely made my game better."

Most importantly, it worked.

Jones started running between the tackles and looking to deliver punishment. It was most noticeable in the regular season finale against Florida State, when the freshman ran for 81 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Jones added the punctuation mark with a 32-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach and secured the win for the Gators.

The lesson Jones was forced to learn is one that plenty of freshman experience. During his career at Armwood High School, Jones was able to do whatever he wanted most of the time. He was bigger and faster than most opponents, so the temptation was almost to run around them.

He learned early in his college career that he needed to be a different type of running back in Gainesville.

"Coming from high school, we used to just run around everybody, go around blocks and not hit the hole," Jones said. "When I got here I thought it was going to be the same way, but getting it from the head coach meant a lot for me. I knew I had to hit it between the tackles and run angry."

The sophomore now heads into spring practice at the top of the depth chart. Mike Gillislee is gone after being the first Florida running back to reach the 1,000-yard mark since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. The offense is geared around its downhill rushing attack, and Jones is set to take the reigns.

But he isn't buying into the hype yet.

When asked multiple times about going into spring as the starter, the humble Jones didn't want to talk about himself. He talked about the other talented candidates for the job -- Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor -- while saying he hoped to win the job. But Jones didn't want to assume it was his. He said he wanted to keep working through the spring and hope things fall his way.

His teammates are seeing a driven Jones with his eye on the starting spot.

"This spring he has been running downhill like every time he gets the ball, trying to get all the yards he can," Florida fullback Hunter Joyer said.

Gillislee set the bar high during his only season as a starter. Jones came in during the summer and watched closely as Gillislee took advantage of his opportunity, and now the sophomore is trying to do the same. He admitted he wouldn't be in this position without the year to sit and watch Gillislee work.

"Playing behind him, I learned being patient, running behind your pads and finishing runs," Jones said. "He's a great player. I'm glad I played behind him. Filling Gilly's shoes is a lot of pressure, though. Whoever wins the battle it's going to be hard to fill his shoes."

It's not that Jones lacks confidence. His humility was easy to see as he talked about his desire to win the job, knowing that the Gators have other talented running backs that could split carries with him. But he wants to be the guy. He wants to be the one that carries the ball 20-25 times like Gillislee did in seemingly every game last year.

His teammates have plenty of confidence that Jones will be able to carry the load.

"He's big, fast, strong and that boy can run the rock," Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. "That's the best thing that you want. It's a step up (from last year)."

Jones is preparing for the potential of being the workhorse running back by taking care of his body in the offseason to handle that load in the fall. He came to campus in the summer last season and wasn't able to go through a full offseason program because of it.

Jones complimented Brown for helping him learn the plays last season, and the two are both trying to work with Kelvin Taylor this spring. The freshman comes to Gainesville with high expectations because of his high school numbers and his last name. Even though he grew up rooting for Miami, Jones remembers watching Fred Taylor play in Gainesville -- and he looked a lot like the new No. 21.

" (Kelvin) definitely does (remind him of Fred)," Jones said. "Same running style, same everything. He knows he kind of runs like him."

The two could anchor the Florida running game this fall.

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