Florida’s top back, OL to miss season opener

Associated Press file photo by JOHN RAOUXFlorida running back Matt Jones runs past Florida State defensive back Nick Waisome for a 32-yard touchdown during a game last season in November. Jones will miss Florida's opener against Toldeo because of a viral infection.
Associated Press file photo by JOHN RAOUXFlorida running back Matt Jones runs past Florida State defensive back Nick Waisome for a 32-yard touchdown during a game last season in November. Jones will miss Florida's opener against Toldeo because of a viral infection.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No. 10 Florida won’t have its top running back and best blocker in the season opener.

Florida coach Will Muschamp ruled out running back Matt Jones and right guard Jon Halapio on Friday, saying neither will be ready to play next week against Toledo.

Muschamp called them “huge absences,” but added that he has confidence in their backups.

“Would I say that we’re going to miss those guys?” he said. “I think we’ll play well in their absence, but certainly they are good football players and we want them back playing.”

Jones has missed all of fall practice following an undisclosed viral infection. Muschamp said the sophomore will have more blood work done Monday to determine if his immune system is healthy enough to start practicing. Still, there’s no timetable for his return.

“He will be out for Toledo,” Muschamp said. “He’s questionable from there on out, but he’s doing very well. He’s really progressing well. They’re putting more on him each day as far as physical activity and lifting and different things. I’ve been very pleased with how he’s progressed.”

The 6-foot-2, 226-pound back was diagnosed with the infection last month, isolated from teammates and hospitalized. Jones lost about 10 pounds, but is nearing his original playing weight.

“He could have some kind of relapse if you tax him too much early is basically what they’ve told me,” Muschamp said. “They want to make sure his immune system is up and he can handle those things. Any time you have a serious viral infection, which is what he had, his immune system is down a little bit. So that’s what they’re handling right now.”

Jones had been expected to be the centerpiece of the team’s run-oriented offense. Without him, the Gators will use fourth-year junior Mack Brown, former walk-on Mark Herndon and converted safety Valdez Showers in the backfield. Freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane also are in the mix for playing time.

“I would say it would be a little more spread out,” Muschamp said. “We got a lot of confidence in Mark and Mack and Valdez. We had a team meeting (Thursday) and I asked Matt Jones in front of the team what was the difference between Week 1 and Week 8 for you last year because you were a different player. He started laughing and said, ‘I went to bed at night. I prepared myself better in the meetings. I prepared myself better for practice. I practiced better and I gave the coaches confidence that I was capable of going in and being a productive member,’ and that’s the bottom line.

“It’s easier for our older players to understand that, but that’s part of the process — being attentive, be able to take it from the classroom to the practice field and then practice well, to be able to give us confidence to be able to put you in the game.”

Halapio is widely regarded as Florida’s most consistent linemen.

The senior has started 27 consecutive games at right guard, the cornerstone of the team’s rushing attack.

But he’s been limited in camp because of a partially torn pectoral muscle. Muschamp stopped short of ruling Halapio out for the first two games — against Toledo and Miami — but projected his return in time for the Southeastern Conference opener against Tennessee on Sept. 21.

“We feel really comfortable where he is,” Muschamp said. “But certainly being his senior year, we don’t want to push it with him. But I would safely project for Tennessee. Possibly before that, but I would certainly say Tennessee.”

Without Halapio, the Gators likely will have former Nebraska guard Tyler Moore play next to right tackle Chaz Green.