GAINESVILLE — If you had told A.J. Jones two years ago that breaking his left ankle during the preseason of his freshman season would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, you would have had a tough time convincing him of it.
The former standout at Tampa's Middleton High arrived in Gainesville in 2006 among a class that included heralded recruits Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe and with great expectations for his future.
But then came the injury and the personal struggles that go along with being a freshman trying to adjust while you're isolated from the teammates who still can play.
At times, it was very tough.
"I just prayed. And my teammates stuck in there with me, and my coaches stuck in there with me," said Jones, who was redshirted. "In retrospect, it was (a blessing). I wish I would have been out there playing. But at the same time, it was a good learning experience. I don't really feel it set me back.
"It gave me a chance to learn, look and see what I can do better and keep getting better. It motivated me to see my teammates out there going. So I just kept going and trying to get better. I just sat back and waited my turn and learned."
He learned well.
Jones appeared in all 13 games last season, with nine starts, made 36 tackles and was named to the coaches' All-SEC freshman team. But this season, Jones said, he finally feels comfortable as part of a linebacker corps that has helped the Gators rank fifth in the nation in scoring defense.
But it hasn't come easily.
"We could talk a long time about (his transformation)," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "He also struggled in school and had some other issues he was dealing with. He's a quality guy that's in a very good program. That means a nutritionist. That means our strength coach. That means our lifestyle department.
"He's really come a long way; not just maturity level and strength, but just as a grown man. I'm very proud of that kind of a story in our program."
In getting to this point, Jones had to transform his mind and body.
He committed himself to a nutrition and weight-gaining program that forced him to eat four to five meals per day. He was 170 pounds when he arrived. Last year, he played between 202 and 205. Today, he's 222.
There wasn't a day that went by, Jones said, when strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti wasn't "getting in my face" about eating right and focusing on conditioning.
It was essential in getting and staying on the field.
"When I first got here, I didn't buy into it," Jones said. "I felt like if you're going to make plays, you're going to make plays. But now I see that your weight, speed and all this training, it finally paid off."
It hasn't gone unnoticed.
"We watch certain plays last year where he was our (strongside) linebacker," said Doe, a linebacker. "And a lot of times, tight ends are 6-5, 250 pounds plus. And it was just certain plays where he couldn't really get off right. He couldn't really fight or hold the edge and things like that.
"Now with those extra pounds, he can lean on them a little better and get that edge. He's making a lot more plays than he did last year."
Jones has started at strongside all eight games this season and had a career-high seven tackles against Tennessee on Sept. 20. He recovered a fumble against LSU on Oct. 11, and his 28 tackles are second on the team among linebackers.
"I've seen him really grow and mature," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "He's being coached by the best linebacker coach in the nation in (defensive coordinator) Charlie Strong.
"He's a lot more confident playing the game this year than last year, watching him on tape. He's a lot more physical, and that's the No. 1 thing he needed to do. He's smart. He's coachable. He just had to be more physical."
Jones credits his teammates for helping him trust the system and said that same philosophy is a major reason for the Gators' defensive success.
"I trust Spikes. I trust Doe. I trust everyone up front. And I trust the whole secondary," Jones said. "We've got so much trust now, and we've got a rotation of everybody switching in and out of the game.
"So trust plays a big part of our defense."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.