GAINESVILLE — After weeks of uncertainty, Florida running back Matt Jones finally feels like himself again.
Jones was projected to be the Gators’ starting tailback but missed the entire preseason and the season-opening game with a viral infection. The Armwood High product played for the first time in the Sept. 7 loss at Miami, but he admitted on Monday that he was not 100 percent against the Hurricanes.
After an idle week for the Gators, Jones is confident he will be back in top form when No. 19 Florida opens its Southeastern Conference schedule against Tennessee on Saturday in Gainesville.
The first time he felt normal since the illness was in practice last week.
“It was this bye week, starting Monday,” said Jones, a sophomore. “I went through practice feeling good, making the right cuts, making one cut that I usually make. Monday through Friday was the best practice I’ve had so far.”
Jones lost 10-12 pounds and spent seven or eight days in a hospital in August, he said. There were several days he could not eat because of a stomach problem.
The illness sidelined him for all of the Gators’ preseason practices.
In his debut two weeks ago, Jones carried 18 times for 47 yards and lost a fumble in Florida’s 21-16 loss at Miami. He wasn’t comfortable taking hits and had only part of the week to prepare for the game.
He got fatigued easily and found the game a bit too fast for him.
“I was thinking I wasn’t ready to come back,” he said. “I was thinking I wasn’t going to be back. My coaches just told me to calm down and trust yourself. Through the third or fourth quarter, I started feeling comfortable. I almost popped one. I started feeling my cuts. So, it went all right.”
Jones remains unsure how he contracted the virus.
“I definitely don’t know what happened,” he said. “They still don’t know what happened right now. I just know I woke up throwing up and feeling nauseous and stuff like that.’’
Gators coach Will Muschamp was uncertain when his top back would be available in the month-plus of uncertainty.
“I think he had a really good off-week,” Muschamp said. “I think he worked extremely hard. I think, again, it was the first game for him. That’s the best part of it. Coming off for him, the issues he had medically, I feel good about where he is right now.”
Now, Jones is two pounds away from his goal weight of 226. He feels ready to lead as the Gators take on the Vols.
“I want to take the team on my back now that I’m back,” he said. “And I feel I know how the game feels now. I have big expectations going into this game to run hard and trust myself.”