- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Matt Jones just needed a little time.
Time to learn Florida's offense, time to adjust to the speed of the game, and time to find out that practicing well is as important as anything he'll do on Saturdays. The last part was giving the freshman running back the most trouble.
It wasn't until the latter part of the season that Jones had finally figured it out: Practice well to earn more trust and play more. It took several months, but Jones is now a part of UF's game plan and not just there to get carries at the end of a blowout.
"He's practiced better," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "That's hard sometimes for young players. They've been the big fish in the little pond and they haven't always had to work as hard or do the things you've got to do on this level. The speed of the game, understanding the scheme, the system, trusting your blocks [are] something that he's continued to work on and done.
"But he's just done a better job of preparing himself throughout the week and understanding what it took to be successful."
It's almost as if you could see the switch being flipped, too. Muschamp had a conversation with the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones before the Gators' Sept. 22 game against Kentucky. He told Jones to quit dancing behind the line of scrimmage and hit the hole -- to quit trying to take every carry to the end zone and get positive yards, Muschamp said. Jones responded with 45 yards on 10 carries in the Gators' 38-0 blowout.
But it wasn't until November that Jones became a bigger part of the game plan. He got work early in the Gators' 14-7 victory over Missouri and finished with 24 yards on six carries. He touched the ball once against Louisiana-Lafayette but carried it eight times for 65 yards against Jacksonville State.
An example of how far he's come is the Florida State game. With the Gators leading 23-20 with little more than nine minutes remaining, Mike Gillislee was assisted off the field after suffering bruised ribs. Jones finished the drive, gaining 15 yards on three carries, helping set up Jeff Driskel's touchdown pass to Quinton Dunbar for a 30-20 lead.
Gillislee could have returned on the Gators' next drive, but Muschamp showed how much trust he has in Jones by sending him on the field instead with 3:58 to play. Jones ran for 14 and 13 yards, respectively, on the first two plays of the drive. Driskel lost 3 yards on the third play, and Jones followed by breaking a 32-yard run for a touchdown.
Jones, who like all freshmen at UF is not allowed to speak to the media, finished with a career-high 81 yards on eight carries.
This late-season surge shows that the starting running back spot in 2013 doesn't automatically belong to commit Kelvin Taylor like many believe. Jones has done enough to be the starter heading into the offseason and it might take a dazzling performance from the son of former UF back Fred Taylor or fellow commit Adam Lane for Jones not to be getting the bulk of the carries next season.
"Given the opportunities he had, he's done an outstanding job," Muschamp said.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne