Star SEC linebackers Cassanova McKinzy, Antonio Morrison to return

The SEC defenses did not improve this season. The bowl games were evidence of that. As a result, half of the teams in the conference will employ new defensive coordinators next season.

But maybe there’s hope.

On Tuesday, two of those first-year coordinators received good news when Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison both decided to return to school for their senior seasons.

McKinzy, who finished second on the team with 91 tackles and led the Tigers with 11 tackles for loss, flirted with the possibility of leaving early for the NFL but ultimately decided it was in his best interest to come back.

The return of McKinzy is a huge coup for newly hired defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. The former Florida head coach is expected to run more of a 3-4, 4-3 hybrid defense at Auburn, and McKinzy’s versatility should make the transition that much easier.

Meanwhile, the Gators welcome back the team’s top linebacker in Morrison. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound junior led Florida with 101 tackles and was voted second-team All-SEC by the coaches after the season.

"I'm returning to Florida and I will be getting my degree in 2015,” Morrison said in a statement. “That plays a big role in why I'm returning. And as a leader of this team, I want to lead my team to Atlanta and possibly a national championship. Coach [Jim] McElwain has put together a great staff and I'm looking forward to working with them this year."

Morrison’s decision might have also been affected by what appeared to be a significant injury to his left knee in last Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl. He was carted off the field in obvious pain, but the school has yet to release word on the severity of the injury.

After the game, interim coach D.J. Durkin addressed his linebacker.

"I can’t say enough about that kid," Durkin said. "He’s very special to me. We’ve been here together the whole time. Whatever it is, however serious it is, I know one thing -- there’s not a tougher guy in this country than Antonio.

“So whatever it is, he’ll bounce back from it and be back playing 100 percent somewhere sometime soon."

That somewhere will be Florida. How soon? We don’t know.

Regardless, Tuesday was a good day for SEC defenses with two of the top 15 tacklers in the conference announcing their return. Will that be enough to buck the current trend and make a once proud defensive league respectable again? Maybe not, but at least it’s a start.