GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Their absence didn’t hurt the Gators in the season opener.
Their return won’t hurt at Miami.
The 10th-ranked Gators face an early season test when they visit the Hurricanes on Saturday in a rivalry that dates back to 1938.
Three key starters who missed Florida’s 24-6 win over Toledo return for the sold-out game at Sun Life Stadium: running back Matt Jones, middle linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy. Reserve defensive tackle Darious Cummings is also expected to make his Gators debut.
Jones missed all of fall camp due to a serious viral infection. Meanwhile, Morrison, Purifoy and Cummings served one-game suspensions and were unavailable.
With Jones out, redshirt junior Mack Brown took advantage of an opportunity to start and put together a career day, rushing for a career-high 112 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones is listed atop the depth chart entering Saturday’s game but Florida head coach Will Muschamp said Monday that the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones will be closely monitored in practice this week, which will determine how much he plays. The unranked Hurricanes opened their season with a 34-6 win over Florida Atlantic.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel is glad to have Jones back healthy.
“I don’t really know what he’s going through or what he’s feeling, but he seems to be handling it well,” Driskel said Monday. “I know he’s going to do everything he can to be at 100 percent. If he’s close to 100 percent, I’ll take that.”
As a freshman Jones served as Mike Gillislee’s backup last year and got better as the season progressed. He finished the season with 275 yards, including 16 carries for 146 yards in the final two regular-season games.
The return of Morrison provides more depth for a defense that limited Toledo’s up-tempo offense to 205 yards. Morrison, projected to start at middle linebacker, is listed at second-team behind Michael Taylor for the Miami game.
Taylor had a strong performance against Toledo with five tackles and one tackle-for-loss.
Morrison finished his freshman season with 34 tackles and one sack. His most significant contribution came in Florida’s 37-26 win at Florida State when he forced Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel to fumble and recovered. The play turned the momentum back to the Gators in a game they reeled off 24 consecutive points.
“He brings certain physicality to our football team and he’s a very good communicator at the linebacker position, which for us is critical because you gotta have a guy that is going to be able to relay the calls,” Muschamp said. “Really proud of Mike Taylor, Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball for this past Saturday.
“We put a lot on them on the line of scrimmage, which he do in every game, but even more so in a first-game situation with as hot as it was with the tempo that Toledo played with those guys did a really good job, which is critical and Antonio does a really nice job with that as well.”
Muschamp said Kitchens has a strained oblique muscle but is expected to play against the Hurricanes. The only other notable injury in the opener was a sprained MCL suffered by starting left tackle D.J. Humphries, who missed the fourth quarter.
Muschamp said Humphries is expected to return to full-contact drills by Wednesday and should play Saturday.
“Injury-wise we feel pretty good about where we are,” Muschamp said.
Having Cummings available will boost an interior line that was limited with Damien Jacobs still recovering from a patella injury in fall camp. Jacobs played in the opener but the 6-foot-1, 309-pound Cummings provides extra muscle inside against Miami running back Duke Johnson, who has 1,227 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns in Miami’s last five games.
“Duke Johnson is an outstanding player. We recruited him here,” Muschamp said. “The guy’s got a great competitive nature to himself. He’s very similar to a Chris Rainey, but a bigger version of that, a guy that can full-speed one cut and get the ball vertical and make people miss in space. He runs hard, runs tough and is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield.”
The running game will be important for Florida, too. Having Jones back in addition to Brown and Valdez Showers provides Driskel more options when he turns to hand the ball off.
Jones could also help develop opportunities in the passing game if he gets going the way he finished last season.
“He’s a guy that’s shown that he can play well in big games,” Driskel said. “He has great hands out of the backfield. He’s solid in protection. He just gives us more depth. We can have fresh legs back there all game long.”