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Ready for the Load

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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Though he has yet to practice with the team in fall camp, Florida will rely heavily upon running back Matt Jones for production in 2013.

Currently battling a severe viral infection which has caused him to miss all of fall camp to this point, Florida running back Matt Jones undoubtedly has to be thankful that he spent countless summer hours in the weight room adding an additional 15 pounds to his six-foot-two frame.

Checking in at a solid 230 pounds just before the start of camp, Jones’ illness has caused him to lose approximately 10 of the pounds which he previously added.

Fortunately for the Gators, Jones appears ready to join the team on the practice field sometime within the next few days. Although it will undoubtedly be difficult to regain all of his weight while enduring grueling practices in the unforgiving Florida heat, Jones will, at the very least, have ample time to get into a groove before Florida’s season opener on August 31.

Though his illness is unfortunate, Jones is unlikely to do too much complaining about his lack of carries during camp.

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Listed as the unquestioned starter following spring camp, Jones’ decision to add weight to his frame stemmed from his knowledge of the impending pounding he will take this season.

Serving as Mike Gillislee’s backup as a true freshman, Jones displayed outstanding potential in limited carries last fall. Running through the gauntlet of an SEC season for the first time, Jones averaged 5.29 yards per carry on his way to 275 yards and three touchdowns. His yards per carry average was actually higher than Gillislee’s average on the season.

While Jones’ yardage total on the season may not seem that impressive, his perceived lack of production was a direct result of the Florida coaching staff choosing to rely heavily upon Gillislee for carries. Jones, despite finishing second on the team in carries for a running back, received just 21% of the touches which Gillislee accrued on the season (52 to 244). For a comparison, Alabama’s leading rusher, Eddie Lacy, had just 29 more total carries than second-leading rusher T.J. Yeldon.

With a coaching staff which has shown that it likes to use its feature back as a workhorse, much is expected out of Jones in 2013, and for good reason. Already one of the bigger backs in the SEC, Jones appears to be the perfect fit for offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s physical ground game. 

As Florida’s likely feature back in 2013, he also appears to be in for a season that will test his mental and physical toughness.

The Gators ran the ball on over 65% of their offensive plays last fall, and, examining the personnel the team has returning on offense, it is safe to assume that Florida once again be a heavily run-oriented offense this season.

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Although Jeff Driskel returns under center, there are still plenty of questions about whether or not he will ever develop into one of the SEC’s upper-echelon quarterbacks. Driskel completed over 63% of his passes in 2012, but he was often criticized for his slow decision-making and his propensity to tuck the ball and leave the pocket prematurely.

A great deal of Florida’s struggles in the passing game last season can also be attributed to the Gators’ lack of the playmakers on the perimeter. Tight end Jordan Reed led the team in receptions last season, while only two true wide receivers - Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond - finished the year with double-digit reception totals. Of those three aforementioned players, only Dunbar returns to Gainesville this season.

The Gators, concerned about a lack of talent at receiver, chose to move cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy to offense in an attempt to increase the unit’s overall athleticism. Purifoy will likely now be counted on for even more production than originally anticipated with the unexpected season-ending injury to Andre Debose, one of the few Florida receivers with meaningful game experience.

Still uncertain about the quality of the passing game, and employing an offensive line which returns three starters while adding in a pair of BCS transfers, the sure-fire strategic move for the Florida offense this fall is to continue pounding the football.

Many experts project Jones’ ceiling to be much higher than Gillislee’s, but for a Florida team attempting to build off of last season’s BCS appearance, patience is not an option.

The Gators need to run the football efficiently in order to be successful in the win column.

In order for that to take place, Jones needs to become a dominant running back right now. Otherwise, the Gators stand a good chance of getting left behind in the race for the SEC East.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.