Jones sees room to run in UT defense

Florida running back Matt Jones returns to an important stadium for his career on Saturday. The junior got his first career start at Neyland Stadium in 2012 and sees a defense he can exploit this weekend.

The box score might not make it look like Matt Jones was the starter in the 2012 meeting between the teams, but he still remembers it as an important day in his career. Mike Gillislee came into the game with an injury and his availability was in question to start the game, even though Gillislee ended the day with 18 carries for 118 yards.

Jones had just five carries for nine yards on that day. Florida’s first drive of the game opened for its own 10-yard line, backed up with 102,455 screaming Tennessee fans. It’s a moment that still sticks out in Jones’ mind. Florida tried to run a trick play on its first offensive play, having Jones take a toss play and hand it off to Andre Debose on a reverse. The exchange was bobbled and stuck Florida even deeper in its own territory.

“(Neyland Stadium) was crazy, and then it got louder as it went. Just crazy,” Jones said of that day. “I think they probably had the loudest stadium I’ve been in. Their fans get into it and, with any team, when their fans get into it, the team tends to pull together and get the rally.”

Jones has matured a lot since that game, and he’s excited to return to Neyland Stadium and show that. After battling through viral infection and a torn meniscus last season, he finally has the confidence back in his tough running style. Jones recalled hitting the wrong holes in 2012 against Tennessee, another obstacle he has learned from.

His teammates see a different player since that game, too.

“He’s just the best leader in the running back position,” Florida center Max Garcia said. “He works hard now and is making good decisions when he decides to hit the hole.”

Jones’ comfort in the running game is good news for the Gators this weekend. The Florida-Tennessee rivalry has been dominated by the team who rushes for the most yards. During the Gators’ current nine-game winning streak over the Volunteers, they’ve outrushed Tennessee every time. The last time the winning team didn’t run for the most yards was in Florida’s win at Tennessee in 2002.

Most of the Florida players watched Georgia and Tennessee play last weekend, and while the game was on TV, Jones saw some issues with the Tennessee run defense. The Volunteers are last in the SEC, allowing 169 rushing yards per game.

“They're not tackling downhill runners as they should,” Jones said. “They're not so big up front, so everybody's O-line is getting a push on them and their (linebackers) are pretty solid, so they get side-to-side. I saw their safeties, they don't come up a lot and tackle a lot.”

Every touch for Todd Gurley got Jones more excited for his chance at the Tennessee run defense. Gurley ended with 208 yards and two touchdowns, and the Georgia offense ended up rushing for 289 yards and three touchdowns.

“It's very exciting being a big back because when you get downhill, people are going to get tired of tackling you,” Jones said of Saturday’s game against Tennessee. “They might be ready to tackle you the first, second quarters. But third and fourth quarter, they get tired like 'Oh here he comes again and I've got to keep on tackling him.' When you do that, just like the Kentucky game, people get tired of tackling you.”

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