Armwood's Matt Jones finally playing like, well, the real Matt Jones

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Wed. November 30, 2011 | Joey Knight | Email

Armwood's Matt Jones finally playing like, well, the real Matt Jones

SEFFNER — Technically, his 2011 debut occurred Sept. 23. Matt Jones, testing his mended knee, covered 89 yards on a half-dozen handoffs against woefully overmatched Leto.

But on reflection, that six-carry cameo may as well have been Springsteen doing an acoustic set, LeBron playing a game of H-O-R-S-E, Tebow running the spread option in a game of flag football.

Which is to say, it was an abbreviated version of Armwood’s downhill-style, Division I-bound force of nature.

The unabridged — and some suggest, unstoppable — Matt Jones premiered Friday night against Hillsborough. With his pads lowered, intensity raised and his knee pain supplanted by newfound purpose, the 220-pound senior ran for a season-best 133 yards on 22 carries in a 23-0 romp.

“I ran with a head full of steam, more confident,” Jones said.

By essentially all accounts, it was his best game of the year.

“From the opening kickoff to the end of the game, yeah,” coach Sean Callahan acknowledged. “Other games, we were seeing flashes. That was the first time we saw four quarters.”

For University of Florida fans counting on Jones to emerge as the between-the-tackles workhorse missing on the Gators’ current roster, the performance was cause for delirium. For the Hawks’ upcoming foes, it might be cause for dread.

Three months since the season dawned, and nearly four months since surgery to repair a slightly torn right meniscus, Jones appears completely healthy and reinvigorated. While getting his ankles wrapped in the Hawks’ training room Tuesday, he said the knee is around “98 percent.”

“I can do everything on it,” said Jones, who does three hard minutes on a stationary bike to warm it up before practice. “The only thing is, it gets stiff. It doesn’t hurt or nothing like that. I ice it down and it gets back to normal. I think it’s close to peaking.”

If that weren’t enough, Jones also has been bestowed with new life, literally.

On Nov. 21, his girlfriend, April, gave birth to a baby girl,  Aniyah Marie. Mom and baby are doing fine, he says.

Four nights later, he dissected the Terriers. It was only his fourth 100-yard game of the year.

“It definitely gives me an extra purpose,” said Jones, who committed to Florida in February and received a visit Monday from several Gators coaches including Will Muschamp.

“I’m running for something. I can actually hold something that I really love and look her in the eye and say, ‘I can do this for you, score a touchdown for you and run with a purpose tonight for you,’ and stuff like that.”

That love for Aniyah is accompanied by the thirst for atonement.

Granted, Jones has a scholarship offer in hand and a newborn in his arms, but Tallahassee Lincoln remains in his craw. He had 19 carries for 147 yards in last season’s Class 4A final against Lincoln, but disappeared after a 79-yard touchdown run to open the second half.

The Trojans pulled off a 17-14 shocker. Jones said a number of factors — a grotesque first-half knee injury to star receiver Ronnie Thomas, a blocked field goal, offensive panic when Lincoln crammed the box — got into the Hawks’ collective heads.

“I was just thinking, if we go back (to the title game) I want to play the first and second half the same way: hard-nosed, downhill,” he said.

“I feel like I let up a little bit last year, I didn’t put enough on the field for my team and if I go back it’s definitely going to be a way of running this year, definitely hard-nosed the first and second half.”

For fans asking all season for the real Matt Jones to stand up, he has done you one better.

He has stepped up, and not a postseason moment too soon.

“If he carries the ball 22 times a game like he did last week, and we play the kind of defense we’re capable of and our kicking game does its job, we’ll be tough to beat,” Callahan said.

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@tampabay.com.

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