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UF's Jones has roller coaster pointed up

8/27/2014

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For every Florida player who lived through that miserable 4-8 season in 2013 there is a personal tale of turbulence. None was more bumpy than that of Matt Jones.

Then a sophomore running back, Jones was expected to excel in the Gators' pro-style offense. Privately, coaches and teammates expressed optimism that Jones might be one of the SEC's best backs.

Then a viral infection cost him all of preseason camp. Not long after he came back, he was out again -- this time for the season -- with torn cartilage in his knee.

"It was just like a roller coaster ride," Jones said. "You go up, you go down and you just never come back up. It was like one of those type of rides. Definitely not a good one.

"I got sick. I was in the hospital for eight days. I played three games. Going out in the LSU game and getting hurt in the first couple of plays. I mean, it was all just bad news last year."

Everyone -- coach Will Muschamp, his assistants and the players -- saw the dismay in Jones after the knee injury. A normally ebullient kid was "way down."

"He really struggled early on with it when it first happened," Muschamp said.

After the knee injury, the first three games that Jones was out -- against Missouri, Georgia and Vanderbilt -- were particularly hard.

With roommate Brian Poole, a junior defensive back, on the road with the team, Jones was alone in their off-campus apartment. He couldn't put pressure on his leg for six weeks, which made it difficult to take care of himself and do the simplest things.

Just getting around the apartment was a grueling ordeal, so Jones crutched over to the kitchen to get all the meals, drinks and snacks he needed to watch the entire football game. Then he had to sit through something just as painful -- loss after loss after loss.

"It was definitely hard just seeing my team play, knowing I couldn't be out there contributing to the team," he said. "I couldn't do anything about it. Absolutely nothing.

"It was hard for me just sitting back on my bed, having to watch the game on TV because I can't crutch out there. It was just bad, man."

It was a dark time for the Gators and a dark time for Jones, who most often chose to deal with the pain, the losses and the helplessness on his own.

"You don't want to call someone out of their way to help you," Jones said, "so I just dealt with it myself."

He did a lot of thinking, a lot of praying, a lot of reflecting on life. He got humble. When he got back on the field, Jones' new attitude was one of appreciation.

"I just learned to go every play hard," He said. "I know that one play could knock your whole career off."

Jones now says he's glad he went through it all, and he knows exactly how his problems in 2013 went from bad to worse. He didn't have his strength back after the infection and gave in to his eagerness to play.

"It happened for a reason, and I look back at it now as motivation," he said. "I definitely learned from it. I learned the hard way that you've got to wait until you're 100 percent to get on the field.

"You've got to come back when you're 110 percent sometimes."

After missing the spring, Jones attacked Florida's preseason camp with renewed vigor. He relished every run, every broken tackle, every hit. Especially the hits. Those made him smile and reflect on how far he's come.

"I feel good right now," he said. "I'm up to 235 [pounds]. I feel fast. I feel stronger.

"I feel 110 percent."

Time to for a comeback.