Florida went old school last season, using a punishing defense and a stout running game behind Mike Gillislee to stay in the BCS National Championship conversation all the way until the final week of the season.
If the No. 10 Gators are going to repeat that feat in 2013, they'll have to do it with some unfamiliar faces stepping into more prominent roles—particularly running back Matt Jones. He had 52 carries for 275 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman last season, including an 81-yard performance against Florida State in the Gators' 37-26 win in Tallahassee.
He is the unquestioned top option at running back in Gainesville, but the 6'2", 226-pounder has been absent from fall camp recovering from a viral infection. Jones was back at practice on Tuesday, but not a full participant, according to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post.
Gators RB Matt Jones did some running in a helmet today, but didn't practice. Could be part of the NCAA-mandated acclimation period.— Jason Lieser (@PBPjasonlieser) August 20, 2013
It appears Jones is on his way back, but how ready will he be for the season?
With only a week-and-a-half before the opener against Toledo, he'll have an uphill battle to get to full speed. Head coach Will Muschamp isn't expecting him to have much of a role in the opener, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
“We’ve planned that way the whole time,” Muschamp said.
It probably won't be an issue versus the Rockets, but the Gators will need him for that Week 2 showdown at Miami. The Hurricanes finished last season averaging 440.2 yards per game, and the best way to slow down a dynamic offense is to play ground and pound and keep them off the field.
Make no mistake, Matt Jones is the most important piece of the Florida offensive puzzle.
Gillislee rushed for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns in an offense that was one-dimensional by necessity last season, and the Gators are counting on Jones to provide the sequel in 2013.
While Gator Nation hopes that the passing game will improve with a talent injection that includes Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood, there's no guarantee any of the newcomers or incumbents will become the downfield threat the Gators desperately need.
It was apparent during spring practice that Jones was the guy. Behind him are junior Mack Brown, former walk-on Mark Herndon and former defensive back Valdez Showers, with freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane having issues with ball security, according to GatorZone.com.
Will Florida contend if Jones isn't the workhorse? That'd be asking a lot.
Whether you consider his game against Florida State last season as his breakout performance, or contend that he's going to be one of the breakout stars of 2013, there's no question that Jones has the talent to be a superstar in the SEC.
Florida needs that to happen sooner rather than later.