When he arrived at UF, Matt Jones tried to bounce runs outside too often. Now, his teammates call him “The Bruiser.”
At 6 feet 2 inches and 226 pounds, Jones brings a physical running style to complement 5-foot-11, 209-pound workhorse Mike Gillislee.
When Gillislee suffered a rib injury in UF’s 37-26 win against FSU on Saturday, Jones took on a larger role, carrying eight times for 81 yards and a game-sealing 32-yard score.
“We call him ‘The Bruiser’ because he’s our big back, and he did step up,” center Jonotthan Harrison said. “He’s got a great future here.”
Jones needed time to find success at UF. During Florida’s first 10 games, he averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 33 rushes. Jones split backup reps with sophomore Mack Brown early in the season, but Brown suffered an ankle injury against Missouri on Nov. 3 and has not carried the ball since.
Jones stepped up to fill the void, rushing 16 times for 146 yards and a touchdown in UF’s past two games.
“It’s just confidence,” Harrison said. “It happens to all young players. You get into your first couple of games, you’re a little nervous. You have the jitters. But as soon as you get used to it, you’re just like, ‘Let’s just play football. Let’s just go out there and do what I do.’”
Coach Will Muschamp said Jones needed to learn UF’s scheme and adjust to the speed of the game.
While Jones could bounce runs outside in high school, he doesn’t have the speed to do so in the Southeastern Conference.
“You’ve got to learn ... to trust instead of trying to bounce it,” Muschamp said. “In high school, he’s probably going to outrun most guys. In this league, you’re not going to outrun everybody. So you’ve got to learn to trust your blocks and have a feel for the run game, and that’s what he’s been able to mature and do.”
Jones ran three times for 59 yards during UF’s game-clinching fourth-quarter touchdown drive against the Seminoles.
On the first of those three carries, Jones stutter stepped past a defender along the sideline before cutting back to gain 14 yards.
The Gators returned to Jones on the next play, and the freshman charged up the middle. A defender appeared to drag him down after a 7-yard gain, but Jones stumbled forward for an extra 6 yards. He jumped to his feet after the play and punched the air with his right arm to signal a first down.
UF went back to him two plays later, and Jones sprinted untouched through a hole on the left side for a 32-yard score.
“Nobody was surprised by his performance,” quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “He ran really hard. No one wanted to really tackle him.”
With Gillislee receiving the bulk of the carries, Jones took a peripheral role this season. Still, Muschamp views Gillislee’s presence as a positive for Jones, calling Gillislee a good role model.
Gillislee complimented Jones’ performance, and Muschamp wasn’t surprised to see Jones thrive.
“Matt Jones played fantastic,” Muschamp said. “We expected him to play that way. … Given the opportunities he’s had, he’s done an outstanding job.”
Contact Greg Luca at email@example.com.