GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida running back Matt Jones was admittedly nervous, rusty and winded in his season debut against Miami.
It was about what he expected after spending a week in a hospital and more than a month recovering from a viral infection that sapped his strength and energy and took off more than 10 pounds.
"I wasn't really trusting myself," he said this week, his first public comments since the team's spring game in April. "I wasn't ready for the hits and stuff like that yet."
Jones ran 18 times for 47 yards — averaging 2.6 a carry — in a 21-16 loss to the Hurricanes nearly two weeks ago. He also fumbled on the opening drive, the first of Florida's five turnovers. The Hurricanes took advantage of the good field position by scoring a touchdown, a lead they kept the rest of the day.
"It's better to lose early than late, and we found out a lot of problems we need to fix," Jones said. "I don't think anything's wrong with our offense. We moved the ball great. We need to work on the little things."
And the big things, like ball security.
But with an extra week to prepare for Saturday's game against Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee (2-1), Jones has high hopes for his second game.
"I definitely have big expectations," he said. "I want to take the team on my back now that I'm back and I know how the game feels now. I have big expectations going into this game to run hard and trust myself."
The Gators (1-1) might need a big game from their featured back.
The ground game has been an integral part of the Florida-Tennessee series the last two-plus decades.
The team with more rushing yards has won 21 of the last 23 meetings. The only exceptions came in 2000 and 2002.
Florida has won eight in a row in a series that used to essentially determine the SEC's Eastern Division, and the Gators have dominated those games on the ground.
The Gators have averaged 177.4 yards rushing during the winning streak, and the Volunteers have averaged 51 yards.
Florida racked up 336 yards rushing against Tennessee last year. It was, by far, the most either team has managed in the series, which became an annual event in 1990.
The Volunteers know that slowing down Jones is the key to shutting down the Gators.
"Talented running back. Talented," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "Can do a lot of things, has a physical style of play, can make you miss. We have to do a much better job on the perimeter of tackling."
Added Tennessee safety Brian Randolph: "He's a physical back. He likes to lower his pads on you, so we've just got to gang tackle him and hit him low."
The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones was hospitalized in July because of the infection, lost noticeable weight and spent weeks recovering. He started working out two weeks later, but team doctors were cautious with his rehabilitation. They wanted to avoid a relapse or any setbacks, especially in Gainesville's sweltering summer heat and humidity.
He was cleared to practice and play late last month, and the Gators targeted the Miami game for his return.
Jones ran 52 times for 275 yards and three touchdowns last season, getting most of his work in mop-up duty behind Mike Gillislee. He was at his best late in the year, running 16 times for 146 yards in the final two regular-season games against Jacksonville State and Florida State. His 32-yard TD run in the fourth quarter against the Seminoles helped seal a victory.
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease and coach Will Muschamp thought so highly of Jones during offseason practice in March and April that they gave him just one carry in the spring game.
His late-summer setback left him basically starting over. And his debut — especially that early fumble — left him yearning for another chance to prove himself.
"I was taking it bad. I was thinking I wasn't ready to come back," he said. My coaches just told me to calm down and trust yourself. Through the third or fourth quarter, I started feeling comfortable, like I almost popped one. I started feeling my cuts. So it went all right."