- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Early in the 2012 season, Florida coaches discovered something puzzling about running back Matt Jones.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound freshman, who was built more like a linebacker, wasn’t playing to his size. Instead of barreling through the middle of the field, Jones tried to either dance or run around his opponents.
It was ineffective and frustrating. Jones had throw out his old high school tactics and learn to put his foot in the ground and go north and south. So head coach Will Muschamp and running backs coach Brian White sat Jones down midway through the season for a meeting about change.
He had to pay more attention to his coaches, be more alert in meetings, and most of all he had to play to his strength: being a power runner.
“You don’t make your fastball pitcher throw changeups,” Muschamp said. “Let’s throw the fastball, and let’s make them tackle the fastball.”
Jones, who played backup to Mike Gillislee, didn’t have spectacular stats last season, but there was a definite change to how he prepared in the second half of the season. To him, his meeting with the coaches changed his entire perspective on his play, and things really started to click during the Jacksonville State game.
Jones ran for 65 yards on eight carries that game, staying in the middle of the field as much as possible. He then turned around with 81 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in the Gators’ 37-26 win at Florida State.
For Jones, his mentality and work ethic transformed. While he understood his role as Gillislee’s backup, he aimed to prove that he wanted carries. He wanted his coaches to think twice about taking him off the field.
“I was so hungry that I was going to show the coaches that I really wanted to play,” Jones said. “I knew I wasn’t going to start, but it was expected that if [Gillislee] went down I was going to be ready at any time.”
Jones’ hunger comes from very humble beginnings. The youngest of three football-playing brothers, Jones grew up in a small, pink, single-family home in Tampa, Fla., never knowing his father. His mother, Barbara Singleton, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when Jones was 16. She’s now cancer-free.
Jones was so embarrassed by his small, crowded house that he would only do in-home visits with coaches at his girlfriend’s house. Florida coaches went by for a traditional Sunday meal -- complete with chicken, pork chops and rice -- before Jones enrolled, but he never showed them his real home.
Leaving that home behind stands as a major motivator for Jones.
“Coming from that, man, it just made me hungry,” Jones said. “I just wanted to get my mom out [of] that situation, and it definitely makes me humble.
“[His mom] wants one of her boys to make it (to the NFL).”
First, Jones had to get through spring practice as the Gators’ new starting running back. With the 1,000-yard shoes of Gillislee to fill, there was a bit of pressure on Jones, who rushed for just 275 yards and three touchdowns last season.
But he entered spring with the mentality of, well, running away with the starting spot. After spending his high school days running a similar offense, Jones said he felt very comfortable with Brent Pease’s playbook. He absorbed it quickly last fall, then locked himself in the film room this spring, studying everything from his movements to defensive sets, safety rotation, blitzes and defensive line tendencies.
“He has attacked the offseason, and I use the word ‘attacked’ in bold letters,” Muschamp said. “He’s has gone after the offseason, and he had an outstanding spring. He’ll carry it a bunch this fall.”
Ask quarterback Jeff Driskel about Jones and he interrupts with one word: freak.
“He’s tough, and that’s what you need at running back,” Driskel said. “He’s not scared to pick up the extra few yards and put his head down, rather than try to bounce it outside.”
Jones is using his fastball, and he’s ready to put this team on his shoulders. He understands that this offense revolves heavily around the running game, and that he’s now the face of the position.
Jones embraces that and oozes confidence, as he wants 1,500 yards and more than 12 touchdowns.
That attitude has Jones’ teammates thrilled about working with him.
“You definitely get excited as an O-Lineman when you have a running back that’s running the ball like that with so much heart and passion,” guard Max Garcia said. “He’s going to be a problem (for defenses) this fall.”
23hEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf