Take overtime against Kentucky, for example. The Gators had most of their success running between the tackles, and Matt Jones provided the best punch in that area. But in a game where the teams combined to run 172 plays, defenses were getting tired and tackling got worse as the game went on.
After being forced to tackle the 6-2, 235-pound Jones for all of regulation, the Kentucky defense started to bounce off him even more in overtime. And that’s why he was the only player to touch the ball during the third overtime, punching the ball into the end zone while going 25 yards in four plays.
“In our league and in most situations, good coaches are going to have an extra hat in the box if you’re going to be able to run the ball, so you’ve got to be able to break tackles,” Will Muschamp said. “I couldn’t off the top tell you how many yards after contact he had, but there was a bunch of running through tackles up front, especially as we fatigued their defense.”
But even before the Kentucky defense started to get tired, Jones was still gashing them on the ground. He’ll continue to be a weapon as the game gets late in the second half, but his size and speed makes him tough to tackle at any point in the game.
After two games in the season, Jones looks like the lead back in the committee.
“You have to have more than one,” Muschamp said. “You got to have multiple guys. It’s a long season and we’re very blessed to have some guys that in my opinion are very talented at the position. Some of them didn’t even get an opportunity Saturday night. We will have a change of pace variety of talented guys.”
Last season was a lost year for Jones. He was diagnosed with a viral infection early in training camp and was forced to miss the season opener. He came back for the second game of the season when the Gators traveled to play Miami, but it was clear he wasn’t himself and Muschamp even admitted recently that Jones shouldn’t have been on the field against the Hurricanes.
They kept putting him on the field, but he never looked right. A torn meniscus at LSU ended his season and cost Jones his chance to get back in a groove in spring practice. He was fully cleared this offseason and wasn’t limited much in fall practice.
The time off last year gave him a chance to prioritize things on and off the football field. Muschamp remembered multiple conversations when Jones came into the head coach’s office and shut the door so the two could have some time to talk about what he was going through.
“Matt went through a tough time last year. He really did,” Muschamp said. “We had a lot of talks and things about life and dealing with adversity in life and all of those things.”
Players and coaches have been careful to avoid saying Jones is more motivated by the injury this season. There is, however, more of a sense of appreciation for the game now that he has had it taken away from him. He was forced to watch his team go through a four-win season from the sideline.
"I think he's ready to go,” Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “He got another year of understanding football underneath him. He's just a physical threat out there. He's somebody that's hard to bring down, and he's going to continue to work."