As Antonio Morrison recovers, opportunities arise for Gators’ linebackers

Alex Anzalone is one player who has a chance to step into a starting role in 2015.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When the Gators arrived for practice Saturday morning, senior linebacker Antonio Morrison was one of the first players off the bus.

Right in front of him was head coach Jim McElwain, who turned to Morrison and playfully joined him in waving toward a reporter who was recording the team’s exit from the bus.

Any discussion about Florida’s linebackers usually begins and ends with Morrison, a second-team All-SEC selection last season by the league’s coaches.

At UF’s media day this week, McElwain singled out Morrison for his work over the spring and summer as he rehabilitated a knee injury suffered in the Birmingham Bowl that required two surgeries.

"I can’t tell you what a great job he’s done to put himself in position to have an opportunity to play this season," McElwain said. "He has had a huge impact as guys have seen how hard he has worked, what he has invested and what he was willing to do to define who he is and what he’s all about."

Morrison is participating in non-contact drills during preseason camp and appears to be moving comfortably. While there is no timetable for his return, the Gators are hopeful Morrison will return sooner than later.

In Morrison’s absence, and with the loss of senior starters Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball from a season ago, the Gators are turning to a group of young players to make an impact and earn their place in the rotation before the season opener Sept. 5 against New Mexico State.

"All those guys can play," Morrison said. "They have made great strides."

Behind Morrison’s 19 career starts, the most experience linebacker on the team is junior Jarrad Davis, who has appeared in 19 games and started twice. Davis had 23 tackles in nine games last year before missing the final three games with a knee injury. Former Georgia Tech linebacker Anthony Harrell, a graduate transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, is also in the mix for playing time.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Davis sat out spring practice recovering from knee surgery but looked good during Saturday’s practice, the third of preseason camp.

"If I had done spring, I don’t know if I would have done so well because I was still feeling the effects," Davis said. "But after spring, jumping into the weight program and getting back into it the whole way, I felt great."

Junior Alex Anzalone, after playing primarily on special teams as a freshman, played 12 games last season and finished with 14 tackles. He has the potential to start in 2015 as first-year linebackers coach Randy Shannon evaluates the group’s prospects with Morrison still slowed.

Shannon said the Gators will explore multiple options.

"We may have two middle linebackers that may be the best two guys on the field," Shannon said. "We have to play them. It may be two outside linebackers who are the best guys. We may have three linebackers in the game who are all weak-side linebackers. Whoever the best guys are at that point in time, that’s who we’re going to have to play."

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Davis understands Morrison’s value to the unit. He is not only the most seasoned player in the group, but also its vocal and emotional leader.

Still, with Daniel McMillian, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell and freshman Rayshad Jackson getting quality reps, Davis is confident Florida’s linebackers won’t be a weak link in what is expected to be one of the country’s top defenses. In addition, former Georgia Tech linebacker Anthony Harrell, a graduate transfer with one year of eligibility remaining, is also in the mix for playing time.

"We all can play," Davis said. "We saw that in the spring. They all stepped up. We know everybody can go out there on Saturday and put something in to help us."

A junior, McMillian played in six games a season ago and had his best game in Florida’s victory over East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl with a career-high five tackles. Powell has primarily been a special-teams player but said he started camp at 224 pounds, the heaviest he has been in his four years at UF.

Powell played in seven games as a redshirt sophomore while dealing with a lingering knee injury. He said he is healthy and ready to earn significant playing time.

"Speed is my weapon," he said.

Powell credited Shannon with helping him develop a broader knowledge of the position.

"I’ve tried to find out his coaching method and for him to find out the way I really play," Powell said. "It made an easier transition for me to learn the defense faster."

And then there’s Rolin, one of the unluckiest Gators in recent memory.

Rolin missed his freshman season due to an injury and finally healthy, suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp last year.

Rolin, listed at 6-3, 216, returned to the field in the spring and made it through camp without the need of crutches.

"It was not a good two years," he said. "The spring was huge, one for my confidence, and to just to learn the playbook. It was huge for me to be able to trust my knee and just to get back out there for the first time in two and a half years.

"Right now I’m feeling the best I’ve felt since high school."

The Gators’ only linebacker in the 2015 signing class is freshman Rayshad Jackson (6-0, 221) out of Norland High in Miami.

Jackson has impressed his teammates thus far.

"He’s got an SEC linebacker’s build," defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr. said. "I just think from the way he looks right now, and with coaching from Randy Shannon, the sky’s the limit."

Davis agrees that Jackson should not be overlooked because he is the newcomer in the group.

"He’s got some real good natural ability and great instincts," Davis said. "He has a knack to get to the ball. I really like watching him play out there."

As they wait on Morrison to return to full-speed, the door is wide open for the rest of Florida’s linebackers to say hello to more playing time.