GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp doesn’t know when running back Matt Jones will return from a viral infection, but he’s not too worried.
Not after the way Mack Brown performed in the spring and during the offseason. He might not be able to replace Jones, but he’s certainly capable of being the Gators’ top back -- even if Jones’ absence were to bleed into the regular season.
"I think Mack Brown’s ready for the job, ready for his number to be called, and I’m looking forward to him having that opportunity," Muschamp said.
It’s an opportunity that many people -- including Brown -- thought would have come much sooner.
He signed with Florida in 2010 as one of the nation’s most talented players -- the No. 34 overall player in the ESPN rankings and the No. 4 running back -- but never quite lived up to that hype. Injuries (a broken ankle and a strained hamstring), a poor attitude and a less-than-intense work ethic limited the 5-foot-11, 213-pound redshirt junior to a combined 40 carries for 167 yards from 2010 to 2012.
The arrival of Kelvin Taylor, the nation’s top-ranked running back and the son of former UF standout Fred Taylor, sparked Brown’s turnaround in the spring. He beat out Taylor for the No. 2 spot behind the 6-2, 226-pound Jones, who had the coaches excited about his potential after a fantastic spring. But now Brown is the No. 1 back for the foreseeable future.
"I just want to show everybody [and] really prove to myself that I still can do what I know I can do," said Brown, who had 25 carries for 102 yards last season. "As far as talent-wise, last couple years I felt like I really couldn’t run like I wanted to [because of injuries], so this whole offseason I just tried to get better and improve in every aspect of the game."
That makes the timetable for Jones’ return pretty significant, but Muschamp said there’s no way to know when Jones will be able to practice. Jones had to be hospitalized and, according to teammates, has lost weight. Muschamp said Jones is recovering.
"We’re in a little bit of uncharted waters here exactly about him coming back and when that’s going to happen and how good of health he’s going to be in," Muschamp said. “I don’t know any of that right now. It’s very uncertain. It’s very frustrating, for him first of all, and for us a little bit.
"Matt’s going to be fine. I do know that."
Regardless of which player is the Gators’ top tailback, the goal is still the same: 1,000 yards. Mike Gillislee did it last season, making him just the eighth player in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards. That has been a rare accomplishment in the program’s 106-year history, but one that Muschamp said should become pretty standard from now on.
"That’s not going to be the exception any more at Florida," Muschamp said. "That’s going to be the norm.
"I’m excited moving forward with our style."
If Jones or Brown or Taylor or any of the other backs reach 1,000 yards, it will mark the first time in school history the Gators have had players rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Emmitt Smith and Errict Rhett each had two 1,000-yard seasons at Florida, but they each had a season with less than 1,000 yards in between.