UF needs Matt Jones to spark offense

Matt Jones, ESPNU's No. 11 running back in the nation, sports some Florida gear at his signing day ceremony on Wednesday. Courtesy T.J. LaFlamboy

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The pressure is on running back Matt Jones.

Florida coach Will Muschamp won't admit it, but it's pretty clear that the signee from Seffner, Fla./Armwood High School has to be pretty good next season or the Gators' running game will be even worse than it was this past season.

Muschamp wants the Gators to become a power-running team, and that requires a big, bruising back who has the capability to run between the tackles. UF didn’t have that with small speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, while Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown have struggled picking up the offense. That leaves the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Jones, who rushed for 896 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games this past season, as UF's No. 1 option at tailback in 2012.

It's a similar situation to what Isaiah Crowell faced at Georgia last season as an incoming freshman -- and the pressure on him was enormous. But Jones, whom ESPNU ranks as the No. 11 running back and the No. 31 overall player in Florida, won't be feeling it from Muschamp.

"In that situation, the only pressure that they're going to have is what they put on themselves," Muschamp said. "If they work hard and they come in here in shape and they accept the responsibility of being a University of Florida football player and learn what to do and how to do it, they'll be fine."

The Gators averaged just 143 yards per game rushing last season, the fewest since they averaged 136.2 in 2002. Most of it came on the perimeter because Demps and Rainey were not big enough to handle running between the tackles. That's where Jones excels. He thrives on contact, and he's earned a reputation as being a tough, fight-for-every-last-yard runner. And he plays, hurt, too. About a month before his senior season, Jones underwent surgery to repair a slightly torn meniscus in his right knee.

He was able to recover enough to play by the season's fourth game.

"Toughness [is his best attribute]," Muschamp said. "He runs behind his pads and he's one of those guys in the fourth quarter you get tired of tackling. That's what we need."

Even if Jones doesn't become UF's No. 1 tailback -- which could mean more carries for fullback Hunter Joyer -- he still could have a role as a short-yardage back. That's an area in which the Gators have struggled since Tim Tebow graduated in 2009. UF tried Trey Burton, who had a little success, but he also lost 14 yards on a fourth-and-1 carry against Florida State.

"We need more of those guys who are able to run up in there when it's fourth-and-1 and know that you're going to move the pile by turning around and handing it to somebody," Muschamp said. "That's something I didn't always feel as comfortable with this year."

Jones, however, isn't the only signee on offense who could play a significant role in 2012. UF's offensive line struggled last season, and a pair of early enrollees -- tackle D.J. Humphries (Charlotte, N.C./Mallard Creek) and guard Jessamen Dunker (Boynton Beach, Fla./Boynton Beach) -- will get a look on the left side of the line. Left guard is a particularly weak position, and Dunker could beat out redshirt junior Kyle Koehne and redshirt freshman Trip Thurman for the starting job.

The Gators also are in desperate need of playmakers to emerge at receiver, and signees Latroy Pittman (Citra, Fla./North Marion) and Raphael Andrades (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln) will get a chance to earn playing time. Pittman is an early enrollee who also could see some time at safety, Muschamp said.

"We'll find out in August," Muschamp said. "That's hard to stand up here and tell you [which freshmen could make a significant impact]. If they come in there and they play well [they will have a chance to play early]."