TALLAHASSEE — Matt Jones simply needed a chance and a dose of confidence.
Through the season's first 11 games, the Florida freshman running back had just 178 yards on 41 carries, an average of 4.3 yards per rush.
When starter Mike Gillislee went down late in the fourth quarter Saturday against No. 10 Florida State with a rib injury, Jones took over on the sixth-ranked Gators' final offensive series and made sure the drive was a quick one.
"He ran hard," quarterback Jeff Driskel said of Jones, a former Armwood High standout. "He ran really hard. No one wanted to really tackle him."
After consecutive 14- and 13-yard runs by Jones to begin the series that started on the UF 44, Driskel lost 3 yards on a run. But Jones broke through the line on the following play for a 32-yard touchdown run to put the Gators up by three scores, en route to a 37-26 win.
"Matt Jones played fantastically," said coach Will Muschamp, who has a policy of not allowing freshmen to talk to the media.
For the game, Jones rushed for a career-high 81 yards on just eight carries. Early in the season, he struggled to run a north-south style despite being 6 feet 2 and 226 pounds. Muschamp said Jones has figured out how to be more effective running up the middle.
"You've got to learn the counter and the counter steps and learn to trust instead of trying to bounce it," Muschamp said. "In high school, he's probably going to outrun most guys. In this league, you're not going to outrun everybody. You've got to learn to trust your blocks and have a feel for the run game, and that's what he's been able to mature and do."
Since getting 10 carries against Kentucky on Sept. 22, Jones had carried the ball 10 times in six games before the Nov. 17 win over Jacksonville State. Center Jonotthan Harrison said that despite not playing for such a significant portion of the season, Jones had been getting more comfortable in the offense each week.
"With experience, with practice, comes confidence," Harrison said. "That happens to all younger players. You get in your first couple games, you're nervous. You got the jitters. As soon as you get used to it, you're just like, 'Let's just play football. Let's just go out there and have fun. Do what I do.' "
Harrison said the team was confident in Jones' ability to close out the game in the absence of Gillislee, who ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries before his injury. He added that what Jones showed Saturday was a sign of things to come.
"He has a great future," Harrison said. "I can already tell because he's willing to work hard and do whatever it takes."