GAINESVILLE — Matt Jones spent eight months working as hard as he could to transform himself into one of the best running backs in the SEC, and in eight days it was nearly all derailed.
That's how long the sophomore was lying in a hospital room at Shands at the University of Florida with a viral infection that struck with little warning. The former Armwood High standout missed all of the Gators' preseason camp and the first week of the season (nearly six weeks) recovering.
"It was just everything that relates to a stomach problem: throwing up, headaches," Jones said. "There were definitely days in the hospital I couldn't eat. I wasn't really concerned. I knew it was going to go away. I just wasn't sure how long I was going to have it. I definitely had a little down point, but I took it well."
Jones' high school coach, Sean Callahan, said the infection "came on fast, and it was vicious," adding, "It really roughed him up. We were all really scared there for a while."
By the time the antibiotics had cleared his system of the infection and he had mustered enough strength to go home, Jones had lost nearly 12 pounds. He found himself in a new struggle: getting back into playing shape.
"He's still trying to get back," said UF fullback Hunter Joyer, who played at Tampa Catholic. "He's still trying to get his strength back, the speed and everything and just getting back in shape and just playing football. It's been a while since he's been out there. He's still getting better, and he's still improving. He's looked pretty good (this week). He's a little more explosive, he's seeing holes and stuff a lot better, just carrying the ball, worrying about ball security and everything like that. It's good."
Jones had his first full-contact practice with Florida the week leading up to the Sept. 7 game at Miami.
"Getting back on the field was kind of tough," he said. "I was fatigued a lot, trying to learn plays again, and getting comfortable with the game, because the game was a little fast. It was definitely a tough process."
Jones was named a starter, just as he had been penciled in before the preseason. But after missing so much time, Jones wasn't truly at full speed. In his heart he knew it, too. When he took his first big hit in the game, he fumbled, which led to a Miami touchdown.
"It was more physical, but mentalwise I was kind of prepared," said Jones, who carried 18 times for 47 yards. "My body was just — I wasn't ready for the hits and stuff like that yet. But as the game went through the third or fourth quarter, I felt good."
Jones, rated the 11th-best running back out of high school, played in all 12 games as a freshman for the Gators and finished third on the team with 275 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But more important, he said, was the knowledge he gained from playing alongside Mike Gillislee, now with the Dolphins.
"Last season I knew Gillislee was going to be the (starting) back," Jones said. "I just kind of came in and played my role and hoped to just fit in and get some playing time. And I learned a lot. I learned how to be patient, how to pass protect, ball exchange. He sat me down in the film room and taught me a lot of stuff. He's a great guy. I learned a lot."
With the benefit of a bye week, Jones and his coaches expect to see a much different player today against Tennessee; the one everyone had expected going into the season.
"Going into that (Miami) game, he had done some good things in practice," offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. "But I don't think he had been in the situation of being hit by defenders, and I think that probably showed up in the game. Now that he's kind of gone through that in the last week and kind of taken the majority of reps in practice and built up his endurance and been bounced around a little bit, I think he's a lot further along to where he's comfortable with what he's doing and understanding the scheme. So I think he's much closer to what we need him to be."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]